If I were a Republican candidate running for president, I would be focused on expanding the base. I would think about what it means to be the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I would engage black voters of all political stripes in a dialogue about why the party’s belief in individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free markets is the solution to many of the problems black Americans confront today.Black voters, like the rest of the nation, have a vested interest in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I would not assume that black voters are a monolithic voting bloc, but most importantly, I would not ignore black voters. To do so would leave this critical voting bloc with a sense that only one major political party has any interest in the issues that affect their lives.

When Senators Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D., Ill.) visited Alabama for the commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” the news media focused on which candidate would attract the all-important black vote. When all of the Democratic presidential candidates participated in Tavis Smiley’s All American Presidential Forum on PBS, the news media again focused on the black community’s reaction.When the four leading Republican presidential candidates failed to participate in Smiley’s Republican presidential forum, the media and the rest of the nation had no choice but to ask why they were not there.(Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Alan Keyes, Ron Paul, and Tom Tancredo were there. I was there too; but I’m not running for president).

According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Democratic share of the black vote declined from 2000 to 2004. In Ohio, between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of blacks who voted for President Bush increased from 9 to 16-percent. Similar increases were seen in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Given the narrow margin of victory President Bush realized in Ohio and other key states, all candidates should remember that every vote counts. In 2008, the number of black voters casting a ballot for a Republican candidate could make all of the difference.

It was a mistake to skip the Tavis Smiley debate, but now GOP candidates need to move forward to earn as many votes from African Americans as possible. The key to the political soul of black voters in America is pretty simple – equal opportunity and economic prosperity. If Republicans communicate their message effectively, 2008 may be a turning point in the battle for the political soul of the black vote.

If I were on the campaign trail, I would speak with black voters about the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine. I would talk about the disgraceful state of public education in America today, and unabashedly declare school choice the legacy of Brown and its legal progeny. Parents of children in urban schools have been told for years that public education just needs more money to teach students properly. While spending on education has soared, and these schools are still failing their students. Students deserve help now: parents deserve control over where their children attend school so that they can hold schools accountable for results. Ultimately, it is education reform that will lead to equal opportunity and economic prosperity.

Also, I would talk about the fact that despite a progressive benefit structure, our nation’s current Social Security system fails the African American community, particularly black men. I would reach out to political scientist Ron Walters who called Social Security “a form of reverse reparations.” I would enlist Richard Parsons, chairman and CEO of Time Warner, Gwendolyn S. King, a former Social Security Commissioner, and Robert L. Johnson, the former chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television – all African-American members of President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security – to help explain the benefits of transforming Social Security into a system of savings and investment. After all, it isn’t the income gap between black and whites that holds us back, it is the wealth gap. Owning an account that would grow into real wealth would help African-American families build for the future as well as save for retirement.

I would warn African-Americans about the downsides of Democratic proposals to expand the federal government’s role in providing health care. More government regulations and restrictions will mean rising costs, long lines, and potentially outright rationing of care. I would offer a better vision of our health-care system: one that has patients in control of health-care resources and decisions.

As the race for the White House heats up, it’s only natural for political commentators to focus on which candidate has the most traction in the black community. Make no mistake, black voters are listening, and a really smart Republican candidate just might have a chance.

-Michelle D. Bernard is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a non-partisan, non-profit, educational institution that seeks to rebuild civil society by advancing economic liberty, personal responsibility, and political freedom.