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Republicans rally against charges of racism

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, the theme is about assuring voters that GOP opposition of Obama is based on his policies, not his race.

September 20, 2009|Peter Wallsten and Robin Abcarian

WASHINGTON — Stung by accusations from some Democrats that bigotry underlies virulent opposition to President Obama and wary of further setbacks among minority voters, some Republicans are lashing back with a new mantra: We are not racists.

That theme was on display over the weekend at an annual pep rally for conservative voters where several of the GOP's potential 2012 challengers to Obama began laying out their arguments to unseat the man who made history as the country's first black president.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Alamitos mayor: An article in Section A on Sept. 20 about Republicans distancing themselves from accusations that bigotry underlies some of the virulent opposition to President Obama identified the city official who sent an e-mail depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch as "the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos." Mayor Dean Grose, who resigned in the scandal's aftermath, is a Republican, but the mayor's post in Los Alamitos is nonpartisan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Alamitos mayor: An article in Section A on Sept. 20 about Republicans distancing themselves from accusations that bigotry underlies some of the virulent opposition to President Obama identified the city official who sent an e-mail depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch as "the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos." Mayor Dean Grose, who resigned in the scandal's aftermath, is a Republican, but the mayor's post in Los Alamitos is nonpartisan.

Republicans are walking an aggressive but delicate line as they try to assure voters that their profound displeasure with the president is based on his policies, not his race. But some Democrats, such as former President Carter, have alleged that the heated opposition to Obama that has surfaced this summer came about chiefly because he is black.

"It's important that we robustly reject any charges that we're racist," said Gary Bauer, president of the social conservative group American Values, who brought activists to their feet Friday with a pugnacious speech arguing that conservatives would gladly support any minority candidate for president who embraced their "pro-family, pro-life" values.

"There's a reason that partisans are quick to throw the racist charge out there -- because they know that, unresponded to and undefended, it not only damages Republican chances with minority voters, but it also damages the party with millions of white suburban voters who, like most of us, desperately want racial reconciliation and believe that is what the country has to do to survive long term," Bauer said later.

Of Obama's drop in the polls since his inauguration, Bauer drew cheers when he said: "The change between January and now wasn't that people discovered he was black -- they discovered he was just another liberal!"

At least two prominent conservative African Americans were featured at the Values Voter Summit -- author Star Parker, a self-admitted former welfare cheat who now rails against big government and entitlement programs, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

"Your accusations of racism are not going to work this time," said Parker, taking aim at liberals as she drew roars from the conservative audience at a Washington hotel. "Truth has no color."

The debate over race poses dangers for both parties.

Obama, who could run the risk of alienating whites, has tried to distance himself from any allegations of racism against conservatives. Civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Al Sharpton told CNN that Carter's remarks had been blown out of proportion.

Republicans, for their part, need to energize their conservative base in opposition to the president, but also cannot hope to win national elections without appealing to larger numbers of minority voters.

Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst managed to offend leaders in two minority groups: blacks who felt that such a display of incivility would be welcomed only against an African American president, and Latinos who noted that the South Carolina Republican's verbal eruption on the House floor reflected anger over illegal immigration. (His interruption came in response to Obama's statement to Congress that illegal immigrants would not receive benefits under his healthcare plan.)

In recent years, the GOP has become a party largely of white Southerners elected by a culturally conservative base. With more than 9 in 10 blacks and nearly 7 in 10 Latinos backing Obama in the 2008 election, Republicans have been losing ground in the Southwest and Northeast. Obama's approval ratings have dropped in recent weeks, but surveys show his support remains strong among blacks and Latinos.

A spate of racial incidents hasn't helped the GOP's image.

This spring in Tennessee, an assistant to a GOP state senator sent an e-mail titled "Historical Keepsake Photo" that featured thumbnail portraits of all 44 American presidents -- except Obama's image was depicted by two white googly eyes against a black background.

In Southern California, the Republican mayor of Los Alamitos sent an e-mail depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, with the caption "No Easter egg hunt this year." In July, conservative TV show host Glenn Beck accused Obama of hating white people.

Bauer said Republicans need to find the right balance, telling "a dwindling number of racists in America that conservatism is not a home for them," while assuring minority voters that conservatives share their pride in the historic nature of Obama's election even as they fight his agenda.

The potential Republican presidential candidates who appeared at the Values Voter Summit -- including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- avoided the subject of race.

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