WASHINGTON – Republicans have long been weak among black voters, but GOP activists say they hope an effort this week to recruit a black Senate candidate in Illinois, along with other outreach efforts, will help boost the party among African-Americans (search).
Black voters have long been in the Democratic camp. In 2000, blacks voted 9 to 1 for former Vice President Al Gore. In 1996, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole scored about 12 percent of the black vote.
Illinois Republicans are trying to recruit former presidential hopeful Alan Keyes (search) to run against Barack Obama (search), the Democratic candidate who electrified party faithful at last month's convention. A GOP source said Friday that Keyes would run, but the potential candidate said he won't make his decision public until Sunday.
Although such a race will ensure that a black person gets elected to the U.S. Senate for only the fifth time in history, Keyes' bid may do little to boost President Bush's chances with this minority voting bloc.
Black leaders have not been shy about criticizing the president and his party on a wide range of issues. Most recently, they were upset at Bush for declining to speak at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP (search)) convention. The head of the NAACP said Bush's refusal to appear makes GOP efforts to reach out to blacks even more difficult.
"I was always under the impression, as a campaigner, that you go places where you're sometimes not necessarily the number-one record on the hit parade, and you do that not to be disingenuous, but to take the edge off and to perhaps win one or two people over, to also be able to confront something head-on," NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume told FOX News. "I think it's important there be dialogue, not distance."
"If he wanted to [increase black support], he's certainly going about it in a very counterproductive way. Not meeting with landmark organizations like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus (search) sends a message that he does not prioritize the concerns of blacks," said Candice Tolliver, communications director for the Congressional Black Caucus. "His chances of garnering any kind of significant African-American support is very, very slight."
The Bush team explained the president's absence at the NAACP event as the result of hostility the NAACP has directed at the president. In the 2000 election, the NAACP ran ads that Republicans called unfairly critical of the president, and some NAACP leaders have harshly attacked Bush.
Bush appeared Friday before the Unity Journalists of Color (search) convention, a very specific segment of the minority vote that extends beyond African-Americans. A large part of his speech defended the federal government's decision this week to raise the terror alert in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Northern New Jersey, but he did touch on other topics.
"I can understand why African-Americans in particular are worried about being able to vote, since the vote had been denied for so long in the South in particular," Bush said, adding that he would consider supporting a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to vote in federal elections. He said Congress had approved $3 billion for states and local governments to make sure the voting process is fair.
The president also appeared last month in front of the National Urban League (search), a non-profit group that aims to enable economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights among African-Americans.
Bush spoke to the Urban League about education, reinforcing the notion that he wants to help underperforming schools in urban areas.
"Year after year, children without schools are passed along in schools without standards. Some see this social promotion as an act of compassion. It is, in fact, a form of discrimination, the soft bigotry of low expectations. That bigotry has young casualties, and that bigotry must end," Bush said, repeating a frequently-used phrase of his.
Although GOP officials acknowledge that blacks are not a traditional constituency, they are conceding nothing this year, adding that the president's record should appeal to African-Americans.
"This president has a record to deliver to the black community," said J.C. Watts, chairman of African-Americans for Bush and a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.
Watts cited the fight against AIDS in Africa, Small Business Administration assistance to black businesses, education programs such as No Child Left Behind and help for traditionally black universities as examples of the Bush record.
Still, he acknowledged the uphill battle ahead.
"I don't think we're under any illusions. We have to start somewhere, and keep chipping away. We can't get discouraged," he said.
Watts heads a steering committee to fight for the black vote, and the Bush campaign has also purchased a radio ad buy on African-American stations in cities across the country.
"The main thing is we don't go backward," Watts said. "It's not going to happen overnight. Twenty to 25 percent is more of a long-term project."
The 25 percent mile-marker has been a Republican goal for some time, but blacks will be hard to peel off from the Democratic base, said Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs (search).
"Let's be candid -- African-Americans are heavily committed to the Democratic part of the party structure," Madonna said. "The African-American vote is not up for grabs."
Madonna said that spending GOP resources on solid Democrats rather than other voters might be a mistake. "The problem is there is only so much time and so much effort, and this election is about two things: rallying the base and winning undecided voters."
For Democratic candidate John Kerry, African-Americans are the base, and his goal is to maintain support in the black community and boost turnout.
The Massachusetts senator addressed the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Unity Journalists of Color conference this summer. He also recently held a "unity breakfast" for minorities and announced a $3 million ad buy on African-American and Hispanic television, radio and print outlets. Kerry is virtually certain to win the black vote, but higher turnout in close states could be a decisive factor in his presidential bid.
Kerry said that as president, he would meet with the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights groups and other minority organizations as part of an effort to build a more united nation.
On Thursday, Kerry repeated his criticisms of Bush to the Journalists of Color conference.
"America is still a house divided, in health status, living standards, access to capital, schools, all the things that make a difference," Kerry said, earning applause when he referred derisively to Bush's decision to skip the NAACP conference.