WATERBURY, CONN. — WHEN Gary Franks, the only black Republican in Congress, visits African-American churches or social clubs, he asks his audiences for their views on a range of divisive political issues.
Usually, Mr. Franks says, blacks tell him they support the death penalty, a moment of silence in public schools, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and welfare reform.
"Congratulatons!" Franks announces. "You've just agreed with some very conservative views. You're honorary Republicans!" And how do his audiences react to that startling statement? "I get a chuckle," Franks concedes ruefully.
It's no wonder that many laugh at Franks's bravado. After all, blacks are the most solidly Democratic voting bloc in the United States. In one recent survey, 85 percent of blacks identified themselves as Democrats; only 8.9 percent said they were Republicans. Exit polls indicate that only about 10 percent of blacks voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Yet a few hairline fractures are beginning to appear in the seemingly solid facade of the black voting bloc.
President Bush has appointed several high-profile blacks, most notably Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.
And a number of black Republicans have run for elected office. This year, for example, 11 blacks have won Republican primaries for US House seats, and Alan Keyes is the GOP standard-bearer in Maryland's US Senate race.
But electoral success has been harder to come by. Only about 85 of the roughly 7,400 black elected officials in the United States are Republicans. Among the most prominent are Franks, who won an election in a largely white Connecticut district in 1990, and J.C. Watts, elected the same year to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Yet a recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal black think tank in Washington, D.C., supports - at least in part - Franks's contention that blacks are more conservative on some issues than their voting patterns would indicate. For example, polls show that most blacks oppose unrestricted abortion, support the death penalty, and back welfare reform (see story, p.6).
David Bositis, the researcher who conducted the survey, cautions that the results should not be interpreted as evidence that African-Americans are becoming right-wing.
They do, however, show that "blacks are not at all different" from the rest of the population in their opinions, he says.
Some Republicans go further: They argue that the black community is growing disenchanted with liberal Democratic policies that have been unable to eradicate inner-city poverty.
They also argue that, while around 90 percent of blacks will vote for Gov. Bill Clinton, most are not happy with the Democratic candidate, who has distanced himself from the traditional civil-rights leadership.
"Black Americans are looking for an alternative solution to their problems - teenage pregnancy, the fact that more black men are in jail than in college, poor economic performance... Blacks are saying that whatever we've been doing is not working. We want to try something else," says Clarence Carter, director of African-American affairs at the Republican National Committee.
"What the Republican Party has not done is present itself as that alternative," Mr. Carter adds. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to do that now."
Most black Republicans and independent analysts agree that the GOP's best chance of attracting African-American support would come under the leadership of Jack Kemp, former presidential candidate and current Cabinet member. As secretary of housing and urban development, Mr. Kemp has pushed a free-market agenda to alleviate inner-city woes.
Black Republicans say they are encouraged as much by Kemp's desire to reach out to minority groups as with his "empowerment" ideas. "There's generally a sense that Kemp wants to speak for the party in inclusive terms," Clarence Carter says, while Patrick Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and other leading Republicans "reinforce the perception that the Republican Party is racially divisive."
But for now, Kemp is only a minor player in the Bush administration. The party's current leadership, some black Republicans complain, is not committed to wooing African-Americans into the GOP for the first time since the 1930s.
"National party leaders are blind to this opportunity. They're not interested in reaching out to black voters," charges Mr. Keyes, the Republican Senate candidate in Maryland.
Keyes is incensed that the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have not backed his campaign against liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Party leaders won't even return his phone calls, he says.
"You've heard of `Read my lips'?" Keyes asks. When it comes to GOP efforts to reach blacks, he adds, "It's `Read my lip service.' "
Gary Franks disagrees. When asked if the GOP has a real commitment to electing blacks, Franks gets up from behind his battleship-sized desk and takes a photograph off his office wall. It shows Franks standing with President Bush.
"I had the First Family and half the Cabinet in my district campaigning for me in 1990... I got a prime-time speaking slot at the  convention," he says. "From my perspective, the party has been very supportive."