The RNC’s Diversity Pageant

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Mia Love is not a household name. But ask any savvy Republican here, and they’ll tell you the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, is one of the party’s political phenoms. Love, 37, is a congressional candidate for Utah’s 4th district. More importantly, she’s a black Mormon with sterling Tea Party credentials. This is the sort of improbable resume that earns you a coveted speaking slot on the convention’s first night — even when you’re down by double digits in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.

When Love took the stage in Tampa Tuesday night, the Utah delegation roared to life, whipping orange Love 4 Utah towels like rabid football fans. Even Stephen Sandstrom, a veteran of the state legislature whom Love beat for the nomination, looked gratified as she drew standing ovations. Love “says a lot about the state of Utah and about where we are as a country,” says Sandstrom, who hastened to add that he was a big supporter. “She’s combating stereotypes about what it means to be a Republican. We’re a big tent.”

On the first night of the Republican convention, a mostly white, aging party did its best to avoid looking like it. Ann Romney and Chris Christie were the headliners. But for much of the night, the spotlight was given over to walking, talking rebuttals to the argument that the GOP is a party for privileged white men. There was Sher Valenzuela, a candidate for lieutenant governor of Delaware (“I’ve seen these on TV!” she said of her first convention); Ted Cruz, the Latino Senate candidate in Texas; South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an Indian-American; African-American former Congressman Artur Davis from Alabama; and Nevada’s Hispanic Governor Brian Sandoval.

The diversity pageant is a timeworn tactic at Republican conventions. Soul singers performed at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, when George W. Bush sought to bring more minority voters into the GOP fold. The number of black delegates peaked at 167 in 2004, 16.7% percent of the overall total. But it plummeted again in 2008, and this year’s confab in Tampa drew just 46 black delegates, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. According to Pew, 87% of Republicans are white, a figure that has held steady since 2000.

Competing against the first black President, Mitt Romney faces an uphill battle appealing to minority voters. But the thumping he’s taking outside of his demographic wheelhouse is forcing him to ring up huge margins among whites just to be competitive. A TIME/CNN poll released this week found Barack Obama leading Romney among nonwhite voters in Florida by 70% to 29%, as well as leading by 12 points among women. In North Carolina, he leads by a whopping 84% to 9% among nonwhite voters. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll pegged Obama up 2 to 1 among Latinos nationwide, and 94% to 0% among black voters.

These margins are why GOP officials think showcasing what diversity the party has is critical. “We’ve never done well with those groups,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Monday at a Tampa hotel, arguing that the GOP should hone its pitch to blacks, Hispanics and youth voters by focusing on how they’ve been battered by the economic downturn. “To be a national party, we’ve got to reach out. That means showing up in their neighborhoods. It’s a tall order, but it can be done.”

The difficulty is compounded by ugly incidents like one that allegedly took place Tuesday night, when an RNC attendee allegedly threw nuts at a black camerawoman and said, “This is how we feed animals.” A RNC spokesman condemned the incident.

Gathering in a state whose shifting demographics reflect that of the nation’s, black GOP delegates and their guests know they’re anomalies. “She’s the Pegasus and I’m the unicorn,” jokes Alphonso Nation, a retired Army captain from Arkansas whose wife is a delegate. It doesn’t have to be this way, he says: African Americans tend to be socially conservative like Nation, who believes the party’s principles better promote the social mobility that has often eluded minority voters.

Romney has made some overtures toward Hispanics, including a new Spanish-language radio ad in which his son Craig — who is regularly enlisted to show off his bilingual fluency– recounts the rise of his Mexican-born grandfather. But delegates say the GOP nominee needs to improve his outreach. “We’re visual people,” says Camille Moore, an African-American delegate from Georgia who works in economic development. “Go out and visit African American communities and let them hear the message.”

The low percentage of minorities in their ranks has led Republicans to aggressively publicize nonwhite conservative politicians. Their visibility in the party both demonstrates inclusiveness and, many believe, refutes accusations of racism that have unfairly dogged the GOP. It’s this phenomenon that helped Herman Cain take a fleeting turn as the frontrunner in this year’s presidential primary. “There are a lot of white conservatives tired of being called racist,” conservative talk show host Steve Deace told me last year, in a succinct summary of how Iowa’s homogenous electorate had fallen for a candidate with dubious policy credentials. “People are giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s an outsider and because he’s not white.”

Which isn’t to say any of the politicians on stage Tuesday night weren’t worthy of the adulation heaped upon them by their party. Texas’s Cruz, in particular, is one of the GOP’s brightest talents. Davis unfurled a scathing denunciation of the President with the fervor of a political convert. But there is little question that their speeches were all the more effective for the faces delivering them.