WATERBURY, CONN. — Jim Griffin was anxious. He had invited Ken Mehlman, the Republican Party's chairman, to address his chapter of the NAACP, and he didn't know what to expect. Would anyone come? Would there be angry questions? Protesters?
After all, the vast majority of African-Americans do not vote Republican. Nor did the delayed federal response to hurricane Katrina, in which most blacks perceived racial bias, help President Bush's image.
But Mr. Mehlman, who has done 31 black-outreach events since becoming GOP chief in January, didn't hesitate to come here for his first visit to a local branch of the civil rights group.
More than 125 people - Democrat and Republican, black, white, and Hispanic, plus a few dozen (mostly white) College Republicans - came to hear Mehlman's breakfast speech. There was no time for questions, angry or not. And no protesters.
In the end, it was a baby step toward a hoped-for renewal of the historical link between the party of Abraham Lincoln and the descendants of the slaves he freed.
"The most important thing is that [Mehlman] came and that there is a concern that African-Americans don't respond to the Republican Party," says Griffin, who is both an ex-Republican and an ex-Democrat and now calls himself unaffiliated. "I just want people to know ... that we are willing to listen to different sides of an issue, not just be wedded to the Democrats."
Over muffins and fruit salad, Mehlman started with the story of his grandfather, a shopkeeper in Baltimore, who joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People long before the civil rights movement and who liked to sneak in to hear Cab Calloway and other black entertainers. Never mind that Joseph Mehlman was a Democrat, a point his grandson omits. The anecdote may speak more to Mehlman's personal commitment to his mission of GOP diversity than anything else. But there is no doubt about the heart of his message: that African-Americans should give Republicans a chance.
The next step in the civil rights movement, Mehlman says, is "to build on the equal treatment under the law ... to ensure equal opportunity to pursue the American dream" and close the gaps in education, employment, housing, healthcare, and retirement. He rattles off statistics showing improved school test scores and record rates of home ownership for minorities.
It was his standard black-outreach speech - with an interruption to snipe at Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, who had declared earlier in New Haven, Conn., that it took "nerve" for Mehlman to address a black group after hurricane Katrina.
"In my judgment," Mehlman said, "the only person with nerve is Howard Dean, who continues to take the African- American vote for granted, and who believes he can dictate who you should and should not meet with and talk to."
In fact, both parties are uneasy about their standing with African-Americans. In last fall's election, Mr. Bush boosted his black vote by three points - from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004. In Ohio, the final battleground state, Bush's black vote went from 9 percent to 16. But even at 11 percent nationally, Bush was still below the 12 percent average of post-1964 Republican presidential nominees. For the Democrats, the loss of any portion of this loyal constituency hurts, especially in tight races.
A Gallup Poll in July found that most blacks who support the GOP are younger than 50 - a sign of a potential generational trend that bears watching in subsequent polls, analysts say. At the Waterbury event, Mehlman was introduced by a young black businessman named Skip Wyatt, a "committed conservative Republican" - with liberal parents. His message of low taxes and educational opportunity resonated with audience member Clarence Jackson, a student at Southern Connecticut State University set to switch to the GOP.
"A lot of the entertainment world is so much against George Bush, but they're glorifying sex and all the wild things, drugs, and we have a high HIV/AIDS rate, especially for minorities," says Mr. Jackson, who also cites the GOP message of lower taxes equals more jobs as a reason to sign on.
To men like Mr. Wyatt and Jackson, the Republican Party's role in ending slavery and, eventually, letting the Democrats take over the civil rights mantle may be important - but it's history. Today, the message of economic opportunity, which dominates Mehlman's outreach speeches, is the driver. The values message is also there, as he promotes the president's faith-based initiative, but Mehlman skips a social issue that could give the GOP inroads into the black vote: gay marriage.
Pastor R.W. Vance, a Pentecostal minister and a Democrat, says he came to the Mehlman breakfast because "the more we gain a relationship with whoever's in office, the better off we'll be as a whole."
He says that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and he opposes abortion. But he credits Democrats for their defense of affirmative action. "When the bottom line comes, we'll always make a move to those who will give the most help," he says.
Given the African-American community's 40-plus years of strong allegiance to the Democrats, some Republicans have quietly told Mehlman he is wasting his time. Other observers agree.
"It's not just the way the Bush administration responded to Katrina, but events afterwards," says David Bositis, an analyst of the black vote at the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies. He notes the suspension of rules about giving subcontracts to minority-owned firms and those requiring payment of the prevailing wage. "There's too much history.... The center of gravity of the Republican Party is white Southerners, the group African-Americans trust the least."
Raynard Jackson, a black political and business consultant, calls Mehlman a dear friend, and gives him credit for believing in what he's doing. But Mr. Jackson thinks the outreach should be focused more on concrete business connections. "You can talk about school choice or the faith-based initiative, but if I don't have a job, I don't hear your message," he says.
The president himself has his work cut out to reach African-Americans. In Gallup's annual minority-relations poll, Bush has gone from a high of 41 percent job approval among blacks in 2002 down to 16 percent in 2004 and 2005. In Gallup's first post-Katrina poll, that figure had slipped to 14 percent. Bush also has yet to address an NAACP convention, a point that, after five years in office, has grown symbolically loaded, despite his appearances before other black groups. The skepticism appears to be mutual.
"The more important question will be, why have some national NAACP leaders allowed themselves to become so partisan that they would appear to many people to be speaking on behalf of one of the two political parties," Mehlman said to reporters in Waterbury.
Mehlman himself addressed the national NAACP convention in July in Milwaukee, including a headline-making acknowledgment that Republicans' strategy of trying to benefit politically from racial polarization was wrong.
It was there that Jim Griffin tapped him on the shoulder and invited him to Connecticut. That was before Katrina. Now, to Mehlman, the imperative to reach out is no doubt even greater.