WASHINGTON – Even as his sharpest critics acknowledge, President Bush's trip to Africa highlights an aggressive and sometimes successful effort to improve the image of the Republican Party among African-Americans.
Bush supporters say the president is doing more than working on image, he's creating a new sensitivity and comfort level with African-Americans that will stand as one of his most important legacies, and one that could pay significant political dividends for Republicans in the long term.
Bush is the first Republican president to visit Africa, making the journey in his first term, the first president to do so. Bill Clinton, referred to by some as America's first black president, traveled to Africa in his second term.
In a speech in Botswana (search), Bush promised the United States would be its partner in defeating AIDS, which has turned the once-jewel of Africa into a plague-ridden country in which nearly four out of every 10 citizens carry HIV.
Earlier in his administration, Bush was the first president to recognize formally the slave Sally Hemmings (search) as part of Thomas Jefferson (search)'s life story. At a ceremony honoring Jefferson, the president acknowledged the founding father's black descendents -- something some of Jefferson's white descendants are still grappling with -- and posed for photographs with them.
Bush also became the first president to hang a portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the White House, commemorating the civil rights leader on the 2002 anniversary of his birthday and delivering a speech in which he said, "America is a better place because he was here, and we will honor his name forever."
In Goree Island, Senegal, on Tuesday, the president came closer than any predecessor to apologizing for slavery.
"One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history," Bush said at the former prison from which Africa's slaves were shipped to America.
Despite much hostility toward him from the black community, Bush also demonstrates an ease with African-Americans that even critics acknowledge cannot be choreographed.
Regardless of the efforts or sincerity, many black political leaders say his efforts don't really alter political attitudes toward the president or his party.
"He may be making some headway, but I think for the most part, African-Americans and minorities see behind all that," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Cummings says African-Americans can't use a presidential photo-op to find a job, educate their children or fight discrimination.
"That's the kind of thing that causes people to say, 'Wait a minute, you know the photo-op syndrome is nice, he's waving to us, he's smiling, he's over in Africa with tears in his eyes almost and all that, but I don't have a paycheck,'" Cummings said.
Other critics say Bush's Africa trip emphasizes style over substance and strikes some as cynical.
"Because of the tremendous gap in the substantive realm, there's a lot of suspicion about what he is doing," said Ron Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, some say the embodiment of African-American success in the GOP, said the president's trip has been all substance -- focusing on aid and trade, investment, threats to African security and HIV/AIDS.
He downplayed the political analysis of the Africa trip.
"The purpose of the trip was not a political exercise. It was not designed to influence the election of next year. It was designed to deal with real problems facing people in need in Africa," he said.
Some Republicans do believe that Bush's outreach has had results. They credit him with helping Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Jim Talent of Missouri win their Senate seats last November.
"If you look at the data, 74 percent of African-Americans self-identified as Democrats in 2000. Sixty-three percent self-identified as Democrats in 2002, an 11-point drop on their side," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Bush's inclusive strategy, GOP strategists say, increased turnout among white suburban moderates who value diversity, and decreased turnout among African-Americans who didn't see Bush or the GOP as threatening as before. The White House hopes to continue the trend as the president campaigns for re-election.
Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.