CLEVELAND _ In 2008, Kenneth Price, a lifelong Democrat, was proud to support Barack Obama in his historic quest for the White House. Price, who is black, even volunteered for the campaign.
Price became disillusioned when the president abandoned his push for a public insurance option in his health care bill and extended the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
When President Obama embraced same-sex marriage in May, "that was the last straw for me," said Price, 52, an ordained minister who owns a Cincinnati business and technology consulting firm. He decided to boycott the Nov. 6 election.
But watching the vice presidential candidates discuss abortion in their debate, Price had a change of heart. "We've had 54 million babies murdered in this country," said Price, referring to the number of legal abortions since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. "The Lord spoke to me in a very clear way."
This year, he will vote for Republican Mitt Romney.
The idea that black voters will desert Obama in meaningful numbers is unthinkable to most political observers. But in Ohio, whose voters will probably determine who lives in the White House for the next four years, a question flickers like a tiny flame of hope for some Republicans: Could a small number of black voters, sufficiently angry or disappointed with the president, be persuaded to vote against him? If so, could that make a difference in the outcome?
"Put it this way," said Leonard Hubert, 59, a black lifelong Republican from Granville, near Cincinnati, and a member of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. "They are less enthused and energized about Obama. Some are going to vote for Romney and some are going to not vote at all."
Just about everyone who follows politics in Ohio thinks there will be a drop in African-American support for Obama, who earned 96 percent of the black vote here in 2008. The question is, how much?
"I think it would be in the narrowest sense a victory for the Romney campaign if he could hold President Obama's take of the African-American vote in Ohio to 90 percent," said former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who is African-American. That could mean tens of thousands of votes, a sliver of the total, but potentially crucial in a tight contest.
Still, many black conservatives said they were frustrated at what they thought was a missed opportunity. While the Democratic Party takes the black vote for granted, they say, the Republican Party assumes it is unobtainable.
"The marriage issue, the life issue, the fact that black unemployment is still double, even in Ohio," Blackwell said. "There's a collection of issues that have fed discontent and provides an opportunity for swinging 6 percent."
It's clear that things are different from four years ago.
On Wednesday night, the Cleveland gospel radio station Praise 1300 hosted a lively debate among black callers. One man compared Obama's embrace of same-sex marriage to the "coming of Sodom and Gomorrah," but said he planned to vote for him anyway.
A woman who said she was a graduate of Howard University said, "I don't see anything the president has done for me personally. It just sickens me to think everybody wants to vote for him. I am for Mitt Romney. I am for biblical principles."
Republicans often point out that in 2004, President George W. Bush received a surprisingly high 18 percent of the black vote in Ohio, but, as Blackwell noted, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the state ballot that year helped drive turnout.
Voters face no such proposal this year, but some conservatives are hoping to arouse some of the same anti-gay-marriage sentiments.
One obstacle they face: After the president spoke in support of gay marriage, the NAACP endorsed the position as well. Black support for same-sex marriage went up almost instantly across the country, including from some unexpected quarters.
"When rappers start coming out in favor of gay rights," said Eric McDaniel, a University of Texas government professor who studies race, religion and politics, "you know something has changed."
McDaniel challenged the assumption that African-Americans would defect from Obama in any meaningful way over gay marriage or any other social issue.
"These issues don't mobilize African-Americans," he said. "They might be opposed to gay marriage, but it's not something they are going to march over. ... At the end of the day, African-Americans see a better way to work with the Obama administration than they do with the Romney administration."
Matt Borges, executive chairman of the Ohio GOP, could not name any specific outreach to black voters. Tara Wall, who handles African-American outreach for the Romney campaign, suggested contacting the Ohio Black Republican Association, but neither the president nor past president of the group responded to phone calls or emails.
Borges was not aware of the work done by a new political action committee, Republican Union PAC, which has put up anti-Obama billboards in black communities, including Detroit and Cleveland, in five swing states. "Obama supports gay marriage & abortion. Do you?" the billboard says.
Some black conservatives are more ambitious than the Republican establishment appears to be.
"We want to peel away 20 to 25 percent of the black vote in the swing states," said Claver Kamau-Imani, an Austin, Texas-based Republican activist. Recently, with a number of high-profile conservative African-American religious leaders, he created "God Said," a campaign aimed at pushing black voters to reconsider their allegiance to the president.
"God Said" has produced a 30-second spot that Kamau-Imani said would air 50 times in the next week in Columbus on the BET cable network. "God said marriage equals one man and one woman," says a narrator over photos of a heterosexual African-American couple. "We agree. On Nov. 6, use your right to vote his values."
Kamau-Imani said the group would also buy airtime in cities in three other toss-up states: Tallahassee, Fla., Norfolk, Va., and Milwaukee.
The efforts of "God Said" are minuscule compared with the nonstop barrage of other political advertising on Ohio's airwaves. But its message is reinforced by other conservative black groups, such as the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Virginia, and the Atlanta-based Coalition of African-American Pastors, which opposes same-sex marriage and works closely with the National Organization for Marriage.
Last Tuesday, two CAAP officials were in Cleveland at the Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church, working out details for a news conference and Bible teach-in Thursday. The Rev. William Owens said the group hoped to capitalize on the media focus on Ohio to spread its message that Obama "betrayed the black community by endorsing same-sex marriage."
One observer thinks there could be some fallout for Obama.
"I think it is possible that these messages might reduce the black vote for Obama on the margins," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "Even so, the black vote will likely be 90 percent or more Democratic this year."
Frederick Douglass Foundation founder Timothy Johnson conceded that some black voters were conflicted over whether to abandon the first black president.
But, he added, "It only tugs at your heartstrings if race trumps faith," he said. "Do we stand by our faith, or do we stand by the color of his skin?"
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