michael-steele_web.jpgThe Republican Party will not concede the black vote to Barack Obama in November. That was the message during a conference call for African-American media on Tuesday, Sept. 23.

Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Republican National Committee political director Rich Beeson, and RNC Director of State and Local Development Shannon Reeves said that despite the presence of a black candidate on the Democratic ticket, Sen. John McCain can appeal to many African-American voters.

“In 2004, a lot of people were stunned that President (George W.) Bush did as well as he did with black communities, particularly in states like Ohio,’’ Steele said. “There were issues that were unaccounted for in the mainstream press that were important to the black community, that Bush was able to speak to. That's a challenge Sen. McCain is willing to step up to.’’

Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in Ohio in 2004.

Steele has personally pushed for the McCain camp “not to discount any vote, because you never know how that vote is going to turn.’’

The Republican Party is counting on what it calls “microtargeting.’’ Beeson said microtargeting “doesn't tell us what color’’ voters are.
Instead, he said,  “it tells us what motivates them on issues. We either persuade them or turn them out based on that data.’’

The GOP is also counting on a nationwide database of voters grouped not by race or ethnicity, but by issue identification and ideology.
The party hopes to turn out its voters starting this Friday, Sept. 26, when many states begin absentee or early balloting.

Steele said he was heartened while attending the NAACP and National Urban League conventions in July and August, respectively, by how many African Americans are willing to listen to McCain’s ideas.

“In this climate, that’s all you can hope for,’’ he said.

McCain appeals to black voters

McCain has faced challenges in appealing to black voters. In Memphis in April, he attended the 40th year commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and told a gathering in front of the Lorraine Motel that he was wrong to vote against the creation of the federal holiday honoring King when he was a member of the House of Representatives in 1983. In 1987, the newly elected senator supported then Arizona Gov. Evan Meacham's attempts to rescind his state’s recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though a McCain spokesman on Tuesday said the senator later “fought to make sure Arizona honored the holiday.’’

Beeson called the current period, with the first presidential debate coming on Friday, and the vice presidential debate looming on Oct. 2nd, the “third leg of a three-legged stool,’’ with the first two being the selection of the vice presidential nominees and the two parties’ national conventions.

He expressed confidence that the GOP’s turnout machine, which made the difference for Bush in 2000 and 2004, would make the party competitive this year, even given the economic downturn that has posed a significant challenge to McCain as leader of his party.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll this week found that voters blame Republicans for the financial collapse on Wall Street by a margin of 47 percent to 24 percent.

“After the debate, it becomes a turnout battle,’’ Beeson said. “The Obama campaign has talked a lot about spreading the map, but if you look at the target states, it looks a lot like it did in 2000 and 2004. I'm sure the Obama campaign would like to have back the money they spent on television in states like Alaska, North Dakota and Georgia, and even Florida, where they spent $7 to 8 million and didn't move the needle very much.’’

GOP counts on voter turnout

Turnout has been the GOP’s trump card in the last two presidential races, with newly registered Republican voters turning out at a higher rate than newly registered Democrats in 2004. A stronger get-out-the-vote operation has helped Republicans overcome voter registration disadvantages in states like Florida, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4.1 million to 3.8 million, according to the latest figures from the state Elections Division.

Democrats registered more than 250,000 new voters from January through July, while Republicans have registered just over 98,000.
Both parties and their respective presidential campaigns have mounted aggressive voter registration efforts with just over a week to go before the Oct. 6 registration deadline.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, Republicans are counting on the “72-hour program,’’ created in 2000, which includes a heavy emphasis on phone and personal contact with voters in the 72 hours before an election to make sure they get out and vote. This year, Beeson said the campaign would run a “720-hour program,’’ with the party “spending the entire month of October getting out the absentee and early vote,’’ followed by “a final push on Election Day.’’

According to the Florida Division of Elections, there were 63,676 Black Republicans in the state as of July 28, compared to 1,084,406 black Democrats and 168,927 unaffiliated or third party black voters. Bush won the state by just 537 votes in 2000 and by just over 380,000 votes in 2004.

Black voter excitement is said to benefit the GOP, too.

Reeves said the GOP is taking advantage of the excitement and increased black voter registration generated by the Obama campaign, particularly in states like Florida, Texas and California, where there are statewide black Republican candidates on the ballot.

In Texas, the state's railroad commissioner, chief justice and an associate justice of the Supreme Court, are incumbent African-American Republicans. In California, the GOP is running a black candidate, Abram Wilson, the first black mayor of the city of San Ramon, for the state assembly. In those races, as well as in the congressional candidacies in Florida, running against Congressmen Ron Klein and Alcee Hastings, respectively, Reeves said “we're making the case that Sen. Obama isn't the only African-American candidate on the ballot.”

He added: “We're making the case that we want people to be open to all candidates.’’

RNC spokesman Danny Diaz vehemently rejected stories, reported in Michigan, Ohio and Florida, that statewide Republican parties were engaging in attempts to challenge black and low- income voters’ registrations, including voter registration by people in Michigan who have received foreclosure notices. Diaz said those stories were based on false reporting, and said that the party “benefits when more people vote.’’

Sarah Palin’s appeal to black voters

Likewise, Steele dismissed questions about Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s potential appeal to black voters, based on her experience and positions on issues like sex education, saying, “I do not recall such questions being asked of the Democratic (presidential) nominee,’’ adding, “I find the standard that’s being applied to Sarah Palin to be typical.’’

Steele also said concerns about McCain’s age are not relevant, given the number of people he knows who have “gone home to the
Lord at younger ages’’ than the Arizona senator, and he cited the skills Palin has acquired “from being a mom, a city councilwoman, a mayor and a governor’’ as making her “imminently qualified for the job of vice president.’’

“As a young African-American woman, Democrat, Hillary Clinton supporter said to me just last week, ‘I am Sarah Palin,’ ” said Steele, saying the woman had a special needs child and was a small business owner. “Will that translate into a vote in November? I don’t know. But Sarah Palin’s story is a legitimate American story, and it speaks to the challenges many women have faced and dealt with in this country. To presume that she does not relate to the black community because she doesn't support this issue or that issue, is to presume that all black people support’’ certain issues.

As for McCain, the advisors said he has done much to court the black community, including attending the 40th year commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, and his appearances before the NAACP and Urban League this year.

Besides, Steele said, “I want to apply the same standard that Sen. Obama applied to me when I ran for Senate, and he came to
Prince George’s County, the wealthiest county in my state  (to endorse Steele’s opponent) and said, this race is not about race. You look at the issues and where these candidates stand with you or against you on the issues. I smile when I hear black moderates and conservatives saying they will vote for (Obama), clearly out of racial pride, because on the issues, it doesn't add up.’’

He said he hopes black voters will pay more attention to where the Republican Party stands on issues like taxes and national security, “and make hopefully what will be a sensible judgment of what’s in your best interests.

Said Steele: “It remains to be seen whether that happens.’’


Photo: Michael Steele