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Can The GOP Lure Blacks "Home"?

When it comes to attracting African American supporters, Republicans realize that such an arduous journey begins with a few small steps. That's why on Mar. 31, Republican National Committee Chairman Kenneth B. Mehlman came calling at Howard University, an historically black school in the nation's capital.

His mission: to convince young African Americans they should join the party of Abraham Lincoln rather than that of their parents and grandparents. With just about 30 students, the audience for Mehlman's speech was barely larger than the group of protesters kept outside by burly campus security guards. But the GOP party boss was unfazed. "Give us a chance," he pleaded, "and we'll give you a choice."

Mehlman's visit to the political lion's den is part of a concerted effort by Republicans to soften the support of the modern Democratic Party's most loyal constituency by concentrating on independent-thinking college students and socially conservative church congregations. By incrementally increasing the GOP's share of the black vote over the next decade from the 11% President George W. Bush received in 2004, former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie says the eventual result could be "a seismic shift" in political control as 20% to 30% of blacks migrate to the GOP.

That's beyond optimistic, but even a modest gain could make a difference in traditional battleground states. "African Americans are in a period of self-reflection now, and it's no time to take them for granted politically," warns Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, when he took 92% of the black vote. Among Brazile's worries: a concentration of 2006 Senate and gubernatorial races in states with higher-than-average black populations, including Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, and Virginia. Democrats must defend four of the seven Senate seats and would love to take the seat likely to be given up by Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Ohio Strategy

The GOP strategy attempts to mirror the 2004 plan for Ohio in which Bush nearly doubled his vote among Buckeye blacks to 16%. Republicans will woo churchgoers who agree with Bush's "values" agenda -- opposition to same-sex marriage and support for federal subsidies for "faith-based" charity work. They also hope to attract young, upwardly mobile African Americans by highlighting economic empowerment, individual choice in education and health care, and party stars such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael S. Steele.

Still, history shows Mehlman's efforts may be more ambitious than effective. Despite millions spent on ads in minority media outlets, Bush's 11% black vote last year was actually slightly below the post-1964 average of 12% for a Republican Presidential candidate. To do any better, says David Bositis, political analyst at the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, "Republicans will have to start supporting issues particularly of interest to African Americans, such as affirmative action and minority set-asides on government contracts."

Republicans are convinced that they have a winning formula. But it will take many more pilgrimages for Mehlman to disprove the doubters. "We can't call ourselves the majority party unless more African Americans come home," he declares. On that, both parties agree.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (FRE) may soon have a regulator with firsthand knowledge of some of their less savory business practices. Congress and the White House are pressing ahead with plans to scrap the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight and replace it with a more robust regulator. Ronald Rosenfeld, 55, former president of the Government National Mortgage Assn., is the leading candidate to head the new agency that will oversee the scandal-scarred housing giants. In 2004, when Rosenfeld was still at Ginnie Mae, a federal court ordered Fannie to pay $6.5 million for allowing a lender to dump fraudulent loans on Ginnie. If appointed, Rosenfeld will fill the shoes of Armando Falcon Jr., a Clinton Administration holdover who withstood strong political pressure as he uncovered billions of dollars in accounting shenanigans and forced out Fannie CEO Franklin D. Raines and Freddie CEO Leland C. Brendsel. Rosenfeld put in stints at Treasury and Housing & Urban Development.

Business travelers are up in arms over the State Dept.'s proposal to require all U.S. passports to carry a radio frequency identification chip. The Business Travel Coalition warns that pickpockets and muggers could roam hotels and airports with card readers, identifying and targeting Americans. A passport can garner up to $3,000 on the open market, the group says. "Carrying a U.S. passport would be akin to placing a sign on one's lapel advertising a $3,000 giveaway," the coalition warns.

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