Republicans are urging blacks to reject the notion that they have no "independent thought" and vote for President Bush after decades of siding with the Democrats in presidential elections.

Many GOP officials and convention delegates acknowledge that getting more blacks into the Republican column will be tough. Exit polls show that in 2000, 90 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Al Gore (search).

Still, they hope Bush's credentials help shake the impression that blacks must vote Democratic. They believe Bush's support of school vouchers and a constitutional ban on gay marriage make him an attractive candidate to many black voters.

"We can't accept this idea that African-Americans can't choose, can't have independent thought," Ohio Lt. Gov. Jeanette Bradley (search), a GOP convention delegate, said at a gathering Wednesday of black Republicans.

J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman, lauded Bradley and other Republican black elected officials as people who choose "not to think like a group."

"They have chosen to say `I elect the right to be an individual,"' said Watts, once the fourth-ranking Republican in the House before retiring in 2002.

The odds of Republicans winning over more black voters are slim at best. Recent polls show blacks preferring Democrat John Kerry (search) over Bush by an 8-to-1 margin. At least 83 percent of blacks voted for President Clinton in the 1992 and 1996 elections.

The disadvantage has not stopped Republicans from taking swipes at Democrats. Bush in July said that while "the Republican Party has got a lot of work to do" to woo more black voters, he questioned whether Democrats' had earned or deserved their votes.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (search), the first black to win elected statewide office in his state, noted in his convention speech Tuesday that it was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation (search), and that GOP senators fought past segregationist Democrats to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Bush campaign says the president's support of school vouchers appeals to black voters with children who may be in bad urban public schools, and points to increasing levels of home and small business ownership among minorities.

They believe gay marriage could be another important issue. A Pew poll released in November found that 60 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage.

"The Republican Party is a natural party for African Americans," said Tiffany Watkins, who works on black issues for the Bush campaign.