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Competing for Every Vote

Is there a downside to the newfound Republican zeal to vie for African-American voters? Not if the result is breaking stereotypes instead of campaigning on them.

America's diversity of races is matched by diversity within races. Voters are individuals, as husbands and wives have been known to show at the polls. Often a black voter and a white voter have more in common than two black or two white voters.

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A recognition, even glorification, of this individuality could rise from action on the words of vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp in Harlem: "I think this country will be better off if both political parties compete for every single vote." The Grand Old Party offers a grand new opportunity for the nation to inch beyond race-based - or gender-based - politics.

The dismaying alternative could be crass appeals to presumed interests of a bloc rather than genuine outreach to all voters.

Mr. Kemp acknowledges that Republicans had not been reaching out sufficiently to members of a black constituency long taken for granted by the Democrats. Effective outreach now depends on more zealous support from the rest of the GOP than Mr. Kemp has received so far - and on policies convincingly addressed to the needs of individuals discriminated against as part of a group.

Pundits say it's a lost cause and Kemp should stick to the suburbs.

But for 17 presidential elections, from Reconstruction to 1932, the GOP did get the votes of most black voters, limited though their voting rights often were. Franklin Roosevelt got 35 percent of the black vote in '32. That rose to 70 percent in 1936 and 1940, attributed to the northward migration of African-Americans - and to social and economic policies that won most white voters, too.

With today's political climate raining on FDR-style remedies, weather-vane candidate Clinton faces Dole's charges that he is stealing the GOP's conservative thunder. Would that both contenders, and Messrs. Perot and Nader too, sign on to what President Eisenhower said to Young Republicans in his second term:

"Never-failing concern for every human being in America, no matter what his religion or the color of his skin. That, as I see it, is Republicanism."

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