Top Democrats and civil rights leaders sneered at Republican National Committee chairman Kenneth Mehlman's plan to set up a panel of GOP-leaning black leaders to wrench more blacks from the Democrats. At first glance their sneers seem justified. There's not one Republican among Congressional Black Caucus members.

Nearly all black elected state and local officials are Democrats. The top civil rights leaders are all Democrats. Despite a big pitch by the GOP to back President Bush's re-election, blacks still voted overwhelmingly for Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Yet the Republicans have a few aces up their sleeves that make them competitive with Democrats for black votes. One is history. For nearly a half century following Reconstruction, the Democratic Party was the party of segregation and Jim Crow. By necessity, blacks were staunch Republicans. The first dozen black-elected Congressional officeholders were Republicans.

During the Depression years, blacks leaped at FDR's promise of jobs, and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. But they did not totally abandon the Republicans. In 1956, Republican Dwight Eisenhower sent the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to Congress. The same year, Ike grabbed 40 percent of the black vote to win re-election.

In 1960, Nixon also received a sizable percentage of the black vote against Kennedy. Nixon almost certainly could have gotten a bigger percentage, and perhaps even bagged the White House, if he hadn't made the mistake of refusing to call Martin Luther King Sr. and offer his support when King Jr. was jailed in Georgia. Kennedy made the call and black leaders, including King Sr. who was a lifelong Republican, publicly praised Kennedy for it.

The Democrats nailed down the black vote in 1964 partly because Lyndon Johnson made good on his civil rights pledge, and in bigger part because Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's states rights platform sent the signal that blacks were not wanted in the party.

These days, Republicans have radically redefined the fight for black rights. It's not for affirmative action, and more entitlement and welfare programs, but for pro-business, pro-homeownership, pro-Social Security privatization, and pro traditional family values.

The first big hint that a growing number of blacks had tilted hard toward conservatism came during the pitched battle over Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination in 1991. Civil rights leaders stormed the barricades to oppose Thomas. But they were shocked when many blacks rallied to Thomas' defense. The pro-Thomas blacks did it not out of misguided racial loyalty but because they agreed with his views.

On the eve of Thomas' confirmation hearing, a near majority of blacks told pollsters that they were pro-life, pro-school prayer, and anti-gun control. A significant number even opposed affirmative action programs.

The rare times that Republicans have made any real effort to put money into a black Republican candidate's campaign and delivered on promises to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business, and education programs, they've managed to win a few key state offices, most notably in Maryland and Ohio.

The emergence of the black evangelicals as a potent political force has been a boon to the GOP, and a nightmare for Democrats. The great untold story of campaign 2004 was that black evangelicals helped tip Ohio and the White House to Bush.

The fear and loathing many blacks have of Bush guarantee the Democrats a winning hand in the hard fought game for black voters. But Republicans hold enough racial trump cards to make them serious competitors in the same game.

*Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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