ATLANTA — J. C. WATTS has a good shot at making political history.
If the former college and professional football star captures Oklahoma's Fourth Congressional District seat on Nov. 8 - a race he currently leads - he will become the first black Republican to be elected from below the Mason-Dixon line since Reconstruction.
Mr. Watts is one of a record 24 black Republican candidates from Mississippi to Minnesota who are running for Congress this election year.
Behind the surge is an expanding pool of black candidates and a growing sympathy, in some quarters, with the GOP message.
Though few of the blacks are expected to win, the increase in the number running for office, up from 11 in 1990 and 15 in 1992, represents a growing diversity in the Republican Party - and a potential threat to the Democrats.
``It's a trend away from being taken for granted by the Democratic Party,'' says Willie Richardson, publisher of National Minority Politics, a new Houston-based magazine targeted to conservative minorities. ``I think you'll see a lot more of it, but before you start seeing more tangible results, the Republican Party needs to build an infrastructure in the black community.''
Polls show no more than 10 percent of voting-age blacks today consider themselves Republicans. In recent years, the party has had a particularly difficult time reaching out to African- Americans because of antipathy among many over the policies of the Reagan-Bush years.
Yet the growing number running under the GOP banner this year, at both local and congressional levels, shows some rethinking is going on.
``There clearly is something new about this large number of blacks running as Republicans at the congressional level,'' says Alvin Thornton, professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Whether it turns out to be significant, he says, will depend on how many decide to run again in two years, since many may lose this time.
The black Republicans who have the best chance of winning are running in almost exclusively white districts, says David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. They are Gary Franks, the lone black Republican congressional member currently locked in a tight race with his opponent for Connecticut's Fifth District, and Watts.
Fourteen of the 24 black Republicans candidates are contesting Democrats in majority black districts and have almost no possibility of winning, Mr. Bositis says.
Analysts see several reasons for the increase in the number of candidates. Bositis, for instance, cites the growing number of people available to run.
``There are more potential black Republican candidates, including black businessmen who tend to come from places where there's been a moderate Republican leadership that would like to open up and diversify the Republican Party more,'' he says.
Sonia Jarvis, a George Washington University professor who is writing a book on the interaction of race, politics, and the media, attributes the jump in part to a larger number of black candidates who are well known in their local areas, have financing, and name recognition, such as Watts.
The Republican philosophy of small government, programs that are tough on crime, and low taxes is an approach that appeals to more and more blacks, especially as they become upwardly mobile and see the results of big government, says Harry Singleton, head of the Republican National African-American Council.
Does that mean that more blacks are turning conservative?
Probably not, says Ms. Jarvis. Instead, the party registrations over the last five years among younger black voters suggest that more are turning independent.
``I think black conservatives are more in the middle than they are with the Democrats or with the Republicans,'' Mr. Richardson says. ``But I think the Republican Party has the best chance to lure black conservatives'' by campaigning in their communities and clarifying party goals.
Unlike the general public, which lists crime as the most important issue, the No. 1 issue in the black community is job creation, Jarvis says.
``The unemployment rate is 60 percent higher in the black communities than in other communities. That's what people are talking about,'' she says. ``So if the Republican Party, whether at the local or national level, began promoting more policies designed to improve that situation, I think they would find a more receptive audience.''
Professor Thornton says the more significant trend in black politics is not occurring on the Republican side but on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
``There is alienation, noninvolvement, association with black nationalist radical organizations talking about going back to the black independent party philosophy of the early 1970s,'' he says.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson sees this as the most important election for blacks in 30 years. He worries about what a GOP-led US Senate would mean for blacks. Of those blacks running under the GOP banner this year, he says: ``If African-Americans in the Republican Party have as there burden making it more progressive...then it's a good thing.''