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Race reemerges as issue for GOP

A controversial parody raises broader questions about the Republican Party’s outreach.

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But recognition was growing within the party that America was changing and that they needed to as well. In 2004, Ken Mehlman, then chairman of the RNC, made a concerted effort to reach out to African-Americans, and he apologized for the Southern strategy.

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That didn’t sit well with some conservatives, but it did mark an opening. And as pollster John Zogby notes, an increasing number of younger African-Americans were looking for an alternative to the Democrats.

“Some felt the Democrats took African-Americans for granted. Others had issue disagreements, from school vouchers to gay marriage to abortion,” says Mr. Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.

Yet many in the African-American community feel that an opportunity for the GOP to expand its ranks was lost during this past election.

“What we saw at the McCain/Palin rallies – people carrying stuffed monkeys, saying this was Barack Obama, and chanting ‘kill ’em, kill ’em’ – that just ratcheted up racial hatred,” says Eric McDaniel, a political analyst at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some African-Americans may agree with [Republican] policies, but at the end of the day, they’re going to say, ‘I’m black, and you’ve made it very clear you don’t want us around.’ ”

Many people within the Republican Party would like it to move beyond its racial legacy. “I, personally, would like to see us move away from use of ‘hyphenateds’ and gender in categorizing people,” says Gary Emineth, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, who organized next week’s forum of potential leaders.

In fact, two of the five leading candidates to lead the RNC are African-American: former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Some Republicans believe their chances to win have been helped by the decision by one of their opponents to send out the racially charged parody. And some pundits think that having a black leader would help the GOP. “The signal that sends to everybody else is that ‘We’re trying,’ ” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.