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A Hill to Climb

The frosty reception that the GOP's minorities get back home shows battle Bush faces for black and Latino votes.


PHILADELPHIA — Vernon Van is not your average Republican. It takes two seconds to spot him in the crowd of spiffily attired politicos at one of the many posh GOP receptions here this week: He's the guy in the tennis shoes and red track suit that says "Running for Congress" across the back.

Van stands out too because he is a 40-year-old black man, one of the tiny minority of African American delegates at the GOP convention. Each one is a precious resource for the Republican Party, an inroad into Al Gore's most loyal group of supporters.

Back home in Long Beach and Compton, where Van is the GOP nominee for Congress, the reception from prospective voters can be frigid, and sometimes downright nasty. "They find out I'm a Republican and they get upset," he said. "They give me strange looks. They look at me like I'm a traitor to my people."

Republicans have made "inclusion" a central theme of this week's convention, a term they prefer to the more liberal-sounding "diversity." They want blacks and Latinos to feel at home in their party. On the convention's opening day, they trotted out a kaleidoscope of black and brown speakers.

But the experience of the party's most loyal minority activists--and especially of the 81 blacks among the 2,066 delegates here--demonstrates just how steep a hill Bush must still climb to win the "ethnic" vote.

In their own communities, the black and Latino GOP faithful can feel like outsiders, eccentrics and misfits. Ask them why they're Republicans--a question that, it seems, is posed often by friends and neighbors--and they'll say something like "I wanted to think for myself."

"Does the fact that you're a black person predestine you to be a Democrat?" asked Roger Evans, a delegate from Springfield, Ohio. "I don't think so. I'm conservative in my approach to life, and the Democratic Party didn't give me that."

In 1996, Bob Dole won an anemic 8% of the black vote and 21% of the Latino vote, according to a Times exit poll. This year polls show Bush doing better among both groups but still winning less than 1 in 5 black voters.

Winning over African Americans means burying a few ghosts from the recent past. There is the menacing face of Willie Horton, the furloughed rapist featured in a televised commercial during George Bush's presidential campaign in 1988, ads that many blacks saw as playing on racist fears.

Six years later, campaign ads to reelect California Gov. Pete Wilson featured grainy images of illegal immigrants running across the U.S.-Mexico border. "They keep coming," a narrator said. Wilson's nativist tactics helped erode decades of GOP gains among Latinos in California.

"A lot of damage was done to our image," said Jose Rivera, chairman of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly and a delegate from Puerto Rico. "We're going to have to do a lot of work to repair it."

One of the activists enlisted to repair the damage was Rivera himself. Much to his surprise, he was asked to give a speech at the convention, a 10-minute talk he began with a cheerful "buenos dias" and other words in Spanish.

"We [Latinos] are not the vote they're looking for because it's politically correct," Rivera said in an interview. "Now we're the vote they need. It's the vote that [is] going to decide this election."

Many black delegates here point out that Bush took a big step toward the black community when he addressed the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People last month, promising, among other things, that "strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration."

Longtime black Republicans recognize that part of their struggle is within the party itself, where progress has been slow. (The number of black delegates, for example, has increased only slightly since 1992, when there were 52).

Asked about the party's opposition to affirmative action programs, Georgia delegate Dylan Glenn paused and wrinkled his brow with concern. "I'm not a sycophant for the party. We're going to work to make it more inclusive."

Glenn's campaign to unseat incumbent Sanford Bishop in a traditionally Democratic congressional district in Southwest Georgia has drawn national attention and the support of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Newt Gingrich and other Republican luminaries. If he wins, Glenn, 31, would be the first black Republican to defeat a black Democrat since Reconstruction.

Like other black Republicans, Glenn feels that Democrats have taken the African American vote for granted.

"If you put all your eggs in one basket, you're ignored by one party and taken for granted by another," he said.

Glenn did not come to the GOP by accident. In the early 1970s, his father was one of a handful of black Republicans in Columbus, Ga. When the younger Glenn was 10, he went to school wearing campaign buttons for Republican candidates. He had sleepovers with white playmates.

"Let race be the other guy's problem," his father told him. Of his upbringing, Glenn said: "I don't argue that I had a unique experience."

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