WASHINGTON -- J. Kenneth Blackwell likens big government to the Mad Hatter's tea party: as guests make a mess at one place setting, they move down to the next one, never cleaning up the messes they leave behind.
Mr. Blackwell, the treasurer of the state of Ohio, is a conservative Republican, a critic of big government and a champion of family, work, education, faith and freedom. He is also black.
"Limited government is conservative, and I believe that because of my parents, Dana and Joyce Blackwell, not because of Pat Buchanan or Phyllis Schlafly," Mr. Blackwell said.
That remark brought applause yesterday at the second annual National Leadership Conference, a gathering of black conservatives sponsored by National Minority Politics magazine, a 9-year-old publication with a black conservative message.
At a time when their neighborhoods are coming apart under an onslaught of social ills -- from teen-age pregnancy to the high percentage of young men in the criminal justice system -- blacks are looking for answers from the coming Million Man March, organized by Louis Farrakhan, to efforts to re-energize longtime civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Blackwell and a number of other black conservatives say they believe that the answers lie in the Republican Party.
National polls suggest that only 7 percent of blacks today consider themselves Republican. But while the numbers remain small, there was evidence during the 1994 campaign that blacks were developing an increasing interest in what has become a Republican message of conservative family values.
One of those who spoke yesterday to an audience of about 100 conference participants was Jack F. Kemp, former secretary of housing and urban development. He won applause not only with a rousing call for "unleashing the power of enterprise" of the poor but also for saying that Republicans had to deal with their own lack of action in the past to rectify discrimination and segregation.
"It is inconceivable that America can move into the 21st century unless it deals with its white-black relations," said Mr. Kemp, who chided the GOP for losing its traditional black voters during the 1960s. He cited an incident from "Parting the Waters," the 1990 book by Taylor Branch about the civil rights era, as an example of a missed opportunity for Republicans.
After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was put in jail for a parking violation, the Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, called Dr. King's wife, Coretta, to offer sympathy. Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate, was dissuaded from doing so for fear of losing the Southern white vote.
"Nixon went from 70 percent approval rating among blacks to 10 percent," said Mr. Kemp. "Kennedy, who had no record on civil rights, went from 10 to 70. The Republican Party made a mistake about not talking about this," Mr. Kemp said. "Because I think most white people in this country -- and I'm not talking about Mark Fuhrman or the skinheads -- but most white people feel that we're all in this together. This is at the heart of the feeling for General Powell."
Though all the Republican presidential candidates were invited, only two, Rep. Robert Dornan of California and Patrick Buchanan, were scheduled to speak to the group.
Mr. Buchanan, whose nostalgic elegies on a bygone America appeal mostly to whites, touched on race only briefly before focusing on economics, his opposition to the the North American Free Trade Agreement and his proposal to impose a five-year suspension on immigration.
"We've got to create economic bonds, and that will solve some of the problem," said Mr. Buchanan, who described blacks as "solid and stable and natural allies and friends of the Republican Party."
"We've got to end all discrimination," Mr. Buchanan said in reiterating his distaste for affirmative action. "We can't cure past wrongs by creating new ones."
There was considerable sympathy for Mr. Buchanan's stance against affirmative action, and the audience gave him, as it gave Mr. Kemp, a standing ovation. But there was considerably less enthusiasm -- indeed, no response at all -- when he described O. J. Simpson's acquittal as an "injustice."
Many in the audience who were in their late 20s and early 30s said the Republicans offered a genuine alternative to the Democratic Party, which, they said, takes for granted support from the black civil rights establishment. At the same time, they said, the Republican Party must do more to reach out to blacks.
"The African-American Republican vote could be the untapped gold mine for the Republican Party," said Henry McKoy, a black state senator from North Carolina.
Mr. McKoy pointed out that he had won as a Republican in a county that is 62 percent Democratic and 28 percent black.
Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said he was an independent but had voted Republican for the last 14 years. "The Democrats," he said, "have no proprietary investment in our independence as a people."
And Gwen Daye Richardson, editor of National Minority Politics, said: "We're in a war of ideas. We're about strong families and strong values, and that's what Republicans stand for."