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Powell, Kemp Polish GOP Appeal to Blacks

Seldom does one hear the words of Martin Luther King Jr. invoked at a Republican rally.

But Jack Kemp quoted the late civil-rights leader at his unveiling as Bob Dole's vice presidential pick this weekend.

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Mr. Kemp's record of working with minorities, combined with retired Gen. Colin Powell's speech last night at the GOP convention, raises hopes among some Republicans that the party may improve its traditionally feeble appeal among black voters.

As Housing secretary under George Bush, Kemp became known as an advocate of business-enterprise initiatives for inner-city African-Americans and Hispanics.

And few figures have generated as much political excitement as the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mr. Powell gained prominence as the leader of the Desert Storm campaign against Iraq. But his attractiveness is also due to his storybook life as the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants who climbed to the pinnacle of power through the US Army.

Powell's decision to join the Republican Party made him the most prominent African-American to embrace the party since Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke took office 30 years ago. He has been hailed by some as a symbol of the party's inclusiveness, of its effort to reach out to minority voters who have traditionally backed the Democratic Party, at least since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Indeed, there is evidence of modest movement toward the Republicans among African-Americans. A small but growing number of middle-class blacks embrace conservative ideas, rejecting many of the premises of the social welfare system that originally drew the black community to the Democratic Party.

"People have realized that the perception that they are being helped is not really help at all," says Teresa Doggett, an African-American and a Republican candidate for Congress in Texas' 10th Congressional District.

Ms. Doggett is a third-generation Republican, hailing from a black Kansan family that kept its ties to the Republican Party. "I'm Republican because I was born that way and because I believe in the principles," the Austin businesswoman explains. In 1994, she got 45 percent of the vote in a statewide election for controller, and she is one of a few black GOP candidates for Congress who are expected to win.

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But even many black supporters of the GOP see little evidence of a significant shift in the almost 90 percent support for the Democrats among black voters that has prevailed for decades.

"There's not going to be some sort of major change," predicts Gwen Richardson, editor of Headway, a black conservative monthly. "There has to be some sort of national, cataclysmic, symbolic event to do it," on the level of Powell becoming the presidential nominee, she says.

Even rising incomes among middle-class blacks do not necessarily open the door to greater support for the Republican Party, analysts say. "While there is some difference in opinions by economic background, when it comes to voting behavior, blacks are just overwhelmingly Democratic," says Jack Citrin, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The association of the Republican Party with racial conservatism is still too strong to allow such a shift in attitude, says Hanes Walton Jr., a University of Michigan political scientist and author of a study on blacks and the GOP. Blacks had supported Republicans as the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that ended slavery, until the time of the Depression.

"After four terms of the Roosevelt administration, African-Americans became attached to the Democratic Party," Mr. Walton explains. President Eisenhower won back about 40 percent of the black vote for his second term after his support for school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark. "But the inroads Eisenhower made were lost by Richard Nixon," Walton says.

In recent years, however, an increasing number of blacks have been running for public office under the GOP banner. Some 24 African-Americans ran for Congress as Republicans in 1994, and two now serve in the House. But the GOP says there are only 16 candidates this year, including the two incumbents. In contrast, the Democrats have 38 black candidates for Congress, 32 of them incumbents.

Richardson says there is also little support from the Republican Party for black candidates. Most made the decision to run on their own, and most are running against well-entrenched black Democrats or in "safe" Democratic districts.

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