ST. PAUL, MINN. — Michael Steele was once the symbol of the Republican Party's ambitions to expand its reach into black America -- a high-ranking African American elected official who traveled the country telling longtime Democrats why the GOP should be their new home.
But as he stepped onto the stage Wednesday to deliver a prime-time speech, he was greeted with a disheartening sight: Out of 2,380 Republican delegates in St. Paul, only 36 were black, or 1.5%.
That's a jarring decline from four years ago, when the GOP, eager to chip away at the Democratic Party's black voter base in the South and big cities, seeded the presidential convention with minorities, including 167 black delegates, according to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
"It's so disappointing, and I'm very frustrated," said Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor who now heads a conservative political action committee.
Privately, Steele is no longer the happy, supportive party man. Instead, he bemoaned that his party -- intimidated by the historic candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama -- had all but given up its ambitions to win more black voters.
"When it comes to the black vote, the Republican Party thinks it has to come up with some sort of magic solution that's strange or complicated," he said. "No one wants to put that level of energy into courting the black vote, so nothing gets done."
Shannon Reeves of the Republican National Committee said the party intended to "compete for each vote within the various ethnic communities of our country."
But from the perspective of the convention floor, the battle for black support seemed lacking.
Thirty-three states -- as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands -- have fewer African American delegates here this week than in the previous convention in New York, according to the report. And 24 states sent no black delegates -- compared with seven in 2004.
By comparison, 24.5% of the delegates -- or 1,087 -- who attended last week's Democratic National Convention were black, according to officials with the Democratic National Committee.
"It's not a good sign for the Republicans," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst and the report's author.
The Republican convention has long been a white bastion, although it hasn't been for lack of trying.
At the 1996 San Diego convention, 2.6% of the delegates were black. In 2000, the Republicans tried to reach out to minorities by showcasing blacks, Latinos and women on stage. That move backfired, with some political commentators joking that there were so many minorities on stage -- and so few in the audience -- that the convention resembled a pro basketball game. Still, the percentage of black delegates increased to 4.1%.
By 2004, the party decided to make a more concerted effort at diversity. Dozens of longtime white delegates offered to stay home so that a woman or a minority could take their place, Bositis said. The percentage of delegates reached 6.7%.
This year, however, the Republicans' dream of winning over more black voters has been shattered by Obama's candidacy.
"So many people here have been saying, 'We're not going to get that vote, so why bother?' " Steele said. "But if we had put in the effort, to define the party and where we stand with the issues within the black community, then maybe we'd talking about a different dynamic when it comes to race."
Renee Amoore, a black member of the Pennsylvania delegation, added: "It's because of the economy. A lot of delegates couldn't afford to come -- and because of Obama."
Augustus H. Shaw IV, a black attorney and one of three blacks in the Arizona delegation, said the decline in African American delegates was not such a dire sign.
"Let's face it. Barack Obama is making history, and African Americans are proud of that," Shaw said.
But Steele said he believed the party should have made a bigger effort to appeal to blacks, even if the payoff would not be so great in November.
"After this is all over, we either need to say that we want African Americans to have a place and a role in the Republican Party, or we don't -- and move on from there," he said.