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GOP Rejects Its Past in Courting Black Support

Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the Republican Party on Thursday renounced the GOP’s racially polarizing “Southern strategy” of the late 1960s, under which Richard M. Nixon used such issues as desegregation and forced busing of schoolchildren to woo white voters and win the presidency.

Republican National Committee chief Ken Mehlman made the comments in Milwaukee to the annual convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which has had an uneasy relationship with the Bush administration.

President Bush has declined to attend the NAACP convention every year since he took office, and on Thursday he spoke instead to an African American business and cultural convention here, telling thousands of conventioneers that his initiatives had led to historic gains for blacks in education, home ownership and small business ownership.

Mehlman told the NAACP that Republicans had been wrong to try to make use of racially divisive issues.

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“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” Mehlman said, according to his prepared remarks. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

Though the “Southern strategy” helped Nixon win the White House in 1968, Democrats solidified their support among black voters in ensuing decades, as Mehlman acknowledged.

Bush agreed with Mehlman’s remarks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. “Ken said it was wrong to try and benefit from racial polarization. We agree fully,” McClellan said. “That is why the president has always reached out to people from all walks of life.”

Asked about Bush’s decision to skip the NAACP convention, McClellan said the president’s speech in Indianapolis had been scheduled “for quite some time,” before any NAACP invitation.

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Republican officials in recent years have extended their outreach efforts to African Americans, one of the most reliably Democratic voting groups. In the 2004 election, Bush won 11% of the African American vote, compared with 8% in 2000, and he increased his share of the black vote by a greater margin in some key battleground states.

Republican Party officials have argued that blacks would benefit from a range of Bush administration policies, including those aimed at building wealth, fighting AIDS in Africa and giving faith-based groups a bigger role in providing government-funded social services. Party leaders have also sought to remind voters that the GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln, remembered as the Great Emancipator.

“Democrats were the party of Jim Crow, and Democratic filibusters blocked progress for decades,” Mehlman said. He also noted that it was a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

In Washington, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said they were unmoved by the outreach efforts of Bush and Mehlman.

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“It’s too little too late,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former judge and voting rights attorney. “The Republican Party strategy is about symbolism in the black community and not substance. The party does not want African American voters fully involved in their process. They simply want 15% to 20% of the vote splintered on election day.”

Caucus Chairman Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) said Bush’s track record did not match his rhetoric, and black lawmakers remained concerned about the role they believed his policies had played in widening disparity in America.

“At every turn, in his State of the Union address, his budget, his nominations to the courts and elsewhere, he has failed to meet any of our expectations,” Watt said in a prepared statement.

NAACP officials could not be reached for comment.

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In Indianapolis, Bush was introduced at the Indiana Black Expo by Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who served as Bush’s first-term budget director.

Daniels said there was “nothing that George W. Bush cares about more” than closing racial gaps in every measure of social and economic well being.

In his remarks, Bush highlighted results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that among black 9-year-olds, reading scores were up 14 points and math scores 13 points in the past five years.

“The achievement gap is starting to close, and that’s good for the future of America,” the president said. “The gap between white and African American 9-year-olds in reading is the narrowest it’s ever been in the history of the 30-year test.”

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Bush also noted that business ownership among blacks was at an all-time high.

“I see an America where all our children are taught the basic skills they need to live up to their God-given potential,” he said. “I see an America where every citizen owns a stake in the future of our country, and where a growing economy creates jobs and opportunity for everyone.”

Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.


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