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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
And the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC ended yesterday. Firebrand Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky beat out a crowded field in the annual straw poll. The surprise finisher in third place was Dr. Ben Carson. He's one of a handful of black Republicans conservatives are buzzing about this year. While the GOP has made strides in cultivating viable black candidates, the party still has difficulty resonating with African-American voters.
NPR's Brakkton Booker was at the annual gathering and has the story.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: He may not yet have the rock star status here at CPAC of top conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas or Kentucky's Rand Paul. But Dr. Ben Carson's following is growing.
HELENA CIARAMILLA: He has to win. He's our destiny. He's the only man who that can unite this country.
BOOKER: Helena Ciaramilla just got her picture snapped with Carson at a book signing. She's now passing out bumper stickers that say: Run Ben Run.
The world renowned neurosurgeon won over legions of conservatives by denouncing Obamacare last year, with the president sitting just a few feet away. He attacks the media, preaches a message of self-reliance and shuns political correctness. That's prompted some to urge Carson to run for the GOP nomination in 2016. Here he is speaking Saturday on CPAC's finale.
DR. BEN CARSON: Of course, gay people should get the same rights as everyone else. But they don't get extra rights. They don't get to redefine marriage.
BOOKER: Carson is not the only black Republican building a national following. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is the current standard bearer for black conservatives. His message of a smaller government, with a well-timed dig at the president, hit all the right notes earlier this week.
SENATOR TIM SCOTT: The success of our economy is seen in the size of our ideas, not in the size of our tax bills. We need to cut our taxes, not raise them like President Obama wants to.
BOOKER: The conference attendees tend to skew younger and are overwhelmingly white, which is why jokes like these go over so well.
SCOTT: And some of y'all don't want Obamacare to increase the taxes on the tanning beds...
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SCOTT: Now, please note I said some of y'all.
SCOTT: I don't really care about that tax. Just joking, just joking, just joking. You got to have some fun when you're at CPAC, right?
BOOKER: Those jokes, however, hide an awkward truth. Even as some black candidates are hitting their stride, the Republican Party's standing among African-Americans is abysmal. Mitt Romney won a mere 7 percent of the black vote.
The mood at CPAC turned serious during a panel called Reaching Out. GOP political consultant Jason Roe served as moderator.
JASON ROE: And the way the demographics are changing in the United States, if we don't change, we will not be relevant to the national debate.
BOOKER: That's essentially the same conclusion the RNC came to in its autopsy report on the 2012 presidential election loss.
Antawan Copeland, an African-American who is attending his first CPAC, says he's been a Republican for at least 15 years.
ANTAWAN COPELAND: I don't think they've made any new strides in my neighborhood. I don't see everyone in the black community rushing out to become Republicans.
BOOKER: So just how far does the GOP need to travel? Look no further than Copeland's fiancee, Carol Smith. Carol is actually her middle name. She didn't want to give her full name.
CAROL SMITH: Because I'm not ready to be outed. I'm not ready to come out the Democratic closet.
BOOKER: She's says she's gotten a warm reception from CPAC attendees, but the social stigma of being labeled a Republican is too much to bear right now.
Is it hard as a black woman to say, you know what, I'm no longer a diehard democrat, I'm now starting to look elsewhere?
SMITH: In private, no. But in public, yes.
SMITH: When I have these conversations with friends and family, I'm vilified.
BOOKER: That's the challenge still facing Republican Party leaders. The party is beginning to produce top black candidates, but that's only half the battle.
Brakkton Booker, NPR News, National Harbor, Maryland.
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