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Can Michael Steele Reverse US Republican Party's Steep Decline?

With President Barack Obama, a Democrat, barely settled into the White House, the opposition Republican party picked a former state official and African American as its national chairman.

Michael Steele took the reins of the Republican National Committee at end of January. This month, as the United States marks Black History Month, political experts are considering whether Steele can reverse his party's steep decline in attracting support from African American voters.

African American voters turned out in unprecedented numbers in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

A survey of voters found the prospect of electing the first black president generated enthusiasm. Ninety-five percent of blacks voted for President Barack Obama. Lillian Jackson from Ohio was one such voter.

"I thank God I lived to vote for him," she said.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies analyzed the exit polls. "There was a record turnout of African American voters," he recalls.

The 2008 election set records in estimated total numbers - more than 16 million black voters - and in African American turnout. Over 66 percent voted.

Even around the peak of the civil rights movement, both numbers were smaller.

The chairman of Howard University political science department, Darrel Harris, watches such trends.

"I can't say they we will continue to see this kind of enthusiasm," Harris said. "Obama's the first. And firsts, in most things, are significant."

And now there is another first. The Republican Party chose a black man and former state elected official [former Maryland lieutenant governor] as its national chairman. Michael Steele promises a new direction.

"It's time for something completely different," he said. "And we're going to bring it to them."

This month, as the nation celebrates the 200th birthday of the man who freed the slaves, Abraham Lincoln, African Americans lead both major political parties.

Republican strategist Tom Feehery says President Lincoln would be pleased.

"That people can be judged not on what they look like," Feehery said. "But what they do."

In November, the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, won only four in 100 African American votes.

In 2006 Steele ran for U.S. Senate in Maryland. He won one quarter of the black vote. And some on the party's national committee say Steele could help broaden the appeal of the party's message.

"The message of personal responsibility, liberty, free markets, it's a message that can appeal to anybody," Seth Wimer, Delaware Republican chairman said. "Regardless of age, race, gender."

McCain won only in states in the south and west where religious conservatives dominate in some states.

Exit polls showed three out of four white evangelicals voted for McCain, voters who usually oppose abortion and gay rights but often express antipathy toward government.

In black churches, ministers often preach similiar religiously conservative themes.

But African Americans, as a group, are poorer than whites. The government lists nearly one quarter below the poverty line while fewer than one in 10 whites are considered poor.

And so Harris says, unlike Republicans, many blacks regard the government as protecting their communitys' interests.

"You just can't go to the black community and say, 'We share personal values with you, family values with you and then turn around and engage in policy decisions that have a negative impact on the community," he said.

Bositis' analysis is more stark. "So long as white southern conservatives are the core of the Republican Party, black voters will never support it," he said.

Republican strategist, Feehery, agrees and hopes the party will quit running against government if it is to broaden its base to include African Americans.

"I think what Steele can do is he can start the process of recasting the party," Feehery siad. "As not the party of the white southern male, by his mere presence."

In these days of economic meltdown, when the new president touts legislation he says will create millions of jobs, Steele maintains a hardline on spending. The new Republican chairman recently asserted that government has never created even one job.