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Associated Press

GOP Seeks A Balance On Racial Outreach

By Tom Raum , Associated Press

January 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

On racial outreach, Republicans are struggling for a delicate balance as they try to put Trent Lott behind them and focus on the 2004 elections. The party is seeking to mollify African Americans within its ranks and recruit more minorities at the same time President Bush is opposing affirmative action in a high-profile case before the Supreme Court.

The administration filed a legal brief in the Supreme Court on Thursday challenging a program giving African American and Latino students a preference when applying to the University of Michigan and its law school. Announcing his decision at the White House, Bush called the program "fundamentally flawed' and unconstitutional.

Though siding with white students in a new legal case, the Bush administration will not ask the Supreme Court to overturn an affirmative action ruling that for 25 years has allowed an applicant's race to be a factor in university admissions.

In legal papers, the administration was staking a narrow position opposing the race-conscious admissions policies now before the Supreme Court but was offering no guidance to the justices on the key question of whether they should scrap the 1978 ruling known as Bakke, a White House official said.

Bush's announcement Wednesday of his opposition to the admissions program followed another move that prompted criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups, his renomination last week of Mississippi judge Charles Pickering to a federal appeals court vacancy. Pickering, a friend of Lott, was blocked last year by Senate Democrats who challenged his race-relations record.

"You are seeing the two faces of the Republican Party in conflict with itself,' said Wade Henderson executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil rights.

White House officials and Republican leaders say they are working hard to reach out to African Americans, whose support for Democrats in the past has been overwhelming, and to other minorities.

But the reaction by civil rights groups and Democrats to Bush's recent steps has been anything but affirmative.

"There may have been a change of face, but there has not been a change of heart,' Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told colleagues in a Senate speech. "There will be much more to say and do on the issue of racial reconciliation in the coming weeks. I hope to see more than just words from our Republican colleagues.'

"At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race,' Bush said.

"The president believes that quotas and racial preferences do not serve to lift up our country and to help the average American,' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said earlier. "Instead, they have a tendency to divide people.'

Although African Americans traditionally vote Democratic, GOP strategists hope to sway younger African Americans. They are also trying to reach out to Hispanics and other growing minorities and to appeal to suburban women and moderates who have been turned off by the party's record on race.

But such efforts were upset last month with Lott's praise of former Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. Lott, R-Miss., resigned as Senate majority leader over the flap.

Republicans concede making inroads among African Americans won't be easy.

"You're surely not going to do it if you don't work at it. So we're going to keep working at it,' said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

But, with the departure of former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, there is not a single African-American Republican in either the 100-member Senate or 435-member House. There are 37 African-American Democrats in the House but none in the Senate.

Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, plan to meet in DeLay's office on Jan. 28 with African-American Republican officeholders and community leaders to discuss issues important to them. A similar meeting was held at Republican headquarters on Monday between a small group of African-American GOP leaders, party chief Mark Racicot and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

"We're not going to turn around 40 years of history in two years. We've got some miles to go before we sleep,' Racicot said.

GOP consultant Scott Reed questions the value of such meetings. "When it comes to outreach to African-Americans, it's Bush's policies that are going to sell the Republican Party, not group meetings,' Reed said. "It's fine to have them. But at the end of the day, Bush's agenda, which is good for all Americans, is going to lift all boats.'

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