GOP's big-tent goals are tough to fulfill

With the Hispanic population poised to grow 35 percent in a decade, outreach rises to top of agenda.

As cameras panned Madison Square Garden this week, they showed the most diverse group of delegates ever at a Republican National Convention. But converting a bigger tent in New York to more minority votes in November will be a tougher proposition.

Expanding the base is an imperative in national politics, never more so than today's 50-50 nation. And the demographics pose a challenge for Republicans, as minority populations who tend to vote Democratic far outpace the growth of whites.

"If we don't attract more minorities who share our values, we'll eventually be a minority party," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - who spoke to two party groups this week on this theme.

A big-tent focus was everywhere on display during convention week, from a record number of minority delegates to inclusive speeches by immigrant Americans such as keynoter Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as candidates head back out on the trail, the reality is that gains will be hard to come by - especially this fall.

"We're seeing Bush get no more than 10 percent of the African-American vote, and no more than 31 percent of Hispanics are expected to support the president - pretty much the same as 2000," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International.

The Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic population will grow 34.7 percent from 2000 to 2009, making this the fastest growing group in nation. Asians are expected to grow by 33.3 percent, blacks by 12.9 percent. By contrast, whites are expected to grow by 2.8 percent.

The drive to win more of those votes is taking hold. GOP leaders say the number of minority delegates is up 70 percent over 2000. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos account for 17 percent of this year's nearly 5,000 delegates, up from 6.3 percent in 1996. It's "a milestone achievement," says Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.

In their appeals to minority voters this year, Republicans are claiming gains for minorities in home ownership, education, and employment. A new plank in this year's GOP platform, while stopping short of a blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, offers some of them a path to eventual citizenship. It's controversial among many conservatives, who wanted to see stricter border controls, but they are toning down protests in the interest of unity.

Many speakers this week appealed directly to new immigrants. "To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party," said Governor Schwarzenegger Tuesday.

Indiana's GOP contender for the US Senate, Marvin Scott, told delegates Monday his ancestors were "involuntary immigrants," but that "your ancestors fought and died to free mine." "My fellow African-Americans, come home to this party. We're waiting for you with arms wide open."

The "big tent" has been a GOP goal ever since 1980, when Republicans convened in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to show solidarity with cities and minority residents. But at the same time, Republicans were running a "Southern strategy" that used race to draw white Southern Democrats into the GOP. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign on a "states' rights" theme in Philadelphia, Miss., scene of the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers. After a loss in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, George Bush launched his South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, known at the time for its ban on interracial dating. Both venues are still cited by civil rights activists as evidence that the GOP plays the race card to win votes.

"The current Republican Party has a history and a legacy it has to live down for it to attract minority supporters, and there is no evidence it's ready to live down that history," says David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. There are still only 59 black GOP officeholders at state or local levels, he adds.

Despite unusually strong appeals to African-American voters in the 2000 campaign, Bush won only 8 percent of the black vote, the lowest of any GOP candidate since Barry Goldwater. Still, 1 in 4 younger black voters describe themselves as conservative, which could portend long-term GOP inroads.

Gains among Hispanic voters are more robust, but still short of the pace needed to keep up with national demographic shifts. Republicans have made some of their greatest gains among Hispanics in the West and Texas, according to the Pew Research Center's 2004 values survey.

Analysts of the Hispanic vote say government services are important to new immigrants, and Republicans aren't framing their campaigns around that issue. "Republicans like to talk about the fact that Latinos are conservative, oppose abortion, and have an entrepreneurial spirit, and that's correct. But Latino communities also want more from government, in education, public safety, and the delivery of social services.

"Republicans have made a commitment to invest in Latino outreach, but it won't bear fruit in 2004," says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. "Republicans don't yet have a cadre of local elected officials, who give Latino potential voters a face on the Republican Party, and that's a real advantage that Democrats have."

Some analysts say the GOP may not have to win large numbers of minority voters outright. For this fall, it may be enough to give them less of a reason turn out.

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