TAMPA, Fla. -- If Artur Davis was bothered by his newfound status as a lightning rod for criticism, it didn't show. The former Alabama congressman strolled across the lobby of his hotel Sunday evening, nearly expressionless and in no hurry, as storm clouds gathered outside.
Davis, 44, is an African-American former Democrat who switched to the Republican party earlier this year and is now supporting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Davis has so fully embraced his new political party that he will be one of the featured speakers Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic National Committee thought enough of Davis' presence in the GOP convention program that it cut a video aimed at taking Davis down a notch.
As Davis walked into the lobby restaurant with a reporter from The Huffington Post, wearing a suit and opened-collar white shirt, no tie, Democratic consultant Donna Brazile sat at a table in the corner eating dinner with a friend. She needled him gently, telling him to go easy on the criticism of his former party. Davis, not one much for jokes, bantered lightly for a moment, then walked a few tables over and sat down to field questions about what he would be saying on Tuesday night.
"You know, I'm not going to preview the speech," he said. And then he launched into a 10-minute explanation of who he thinks his audience is. Hint: it's not black Democrats.
"The word race does not appear in this speech. The word African-American does not appear in this speech," Davis said.
Davis, who moved to Northern Virginia with his wife in 2011 and is thought to be interested in running for Congress in the commonwealth as a Republican, said he had a very specific, strategic goal behind his speech.
"While my leaving the party has gotten attention for predictable reasons -- a former Obama supporter, African-American elected official and all that -- the reality is that according to Gallup, 9 percent of Obama supporters do not plan to vote for Barack Obama. He got 70 million votes. That translates, even by my math, into 6.3 million people," Davis said.
Logical, and on target. Davis, the son of a single mother, who grew up Montgomery, Ala., and graduated from Harvard Law School two years after President Barack Obama, is also not one much for emotion, or at least any observable displays of it.
"Mitt Romney can win this election simply on the votes of disaffected Obama supporters," said Davis, his hair shaped in a vague flat top. "That makes them a very pivotal strategic group ... It's important I think to talk about why they've moved, what set of forces and what set of issues have caused them to move. That's obviously going to be the cast of what my remarks will be."
But when a man who was co-chair of President Obama's 2008 campaign, a prominent African-American member of Congress and a candidate for governor of Alabama (he lost the 2010 Democratic primary) suddenly goes Republican -- and is quickly one of the most high-profile black Republican politicians on the national scene -- it's hard to keep race out of the picture.
Former Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), who was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus during his time in Congress, wrote an opinion column that appeared on HuffPost Sunday, characterizing Davis as a traitor for making his decision.
"Very few principles are involved in this opportunistic Judas conversion," Owens wrote. "To clinch his thirty pieces of silver Artur Davis has now openly placed himself on the auction block."
Owens also wrote that Davis was among a group of "highly visible Blacks who are willing to spit on Martin Luther King's dream" in exchange for "extravagant rewards." In Davis' case, Owens wrote, the former Democrat was pursuing "right wing wealth."
"Tune in to the Artur Davis show at the Republican convention and you will see that when the right picks up a smooth, double-talking Harvard Law School graduate it can be satisfied that it has made a profitable trip to the new 21st Century auction block," Owens wrote.
Race is the unavoidable issue for many when it comes to Davis. And he has engaged on the issue recently, accusing the Obama campaign of using race for political advantage in a column for National Review. To HuffPost, Davis said the Obama campaign has wielded race "as a sword and a shield."
But he insisted his speech Tuesday night would not dwell on race. How, exactly?
"Very easy. Don't mention it," Davis said with a chuckle.
"Most of those 6.3 million didn't leave because of race," he said, referring to disaffected 2008 Obama voters. "Very few of them are African-American. So because this is a talk about that group of 6.3 million individuals, very few of whom are African-American, it would be off point for me to really talk about race. There are other settings for me to do that, when it's appropriate. This is not one of them."
Davis is locked in on something that will, in fact, be a huge factor in the 10 weeks between now and the Nov. 6 election. This reporter met Davis after coming from a focus group run by Republican consultant Frank Luntz. Some are skeptical of Luntz given his partisan leanings, but one thing was clear from the 23 people in the room with him: most said they voted for Obama in 2008, and many were disappointed with the president, even if they still like him.
As for the GOP's relationship with minorities, Davis said there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
"The African-American loyalty to the president is very intense and very powerful and very personal," he said. "That's not something that's going to be dislodged."
But "over time" Davis said Republicans can make progress if they become "comfortable not just talking about conservatism as a defense of liberty, but as an instrument for expanding social mobility and opportunity."
He sounded a lot like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who criticized Romney for not speaking more directly to those in the middle and lower economic rungs of America. And in fact, the first name out of Davis' mouth was Daniels, when asked who is articulating this kind of case for conservatism.
"There are some conservatives who are very comfortable defining the movement as being one of defending the economic liberty of Americans," Davis said. "That's a part of conservatism but that can't be the whole of conservatism. If that's the whole of conservatism, it means the party is not making a case to a chunk of Americans whose primary concern when they get up in the morning is frankly not protecting their liberty, but rising, having upward mobility, having ability to move from lower class to middle class to upper class."
"If you say to them, the dominant question is we're going to protect you from a European style social democracy, you'll lose them," he said. "They're wondering if they can climb the economic ladder, and they wonder whether or not the government is an impediment or an asset to them. So I think conservatism has to be broader and more textured than a defense of economic liberty."
It was clear, though, that Owens' column had gotten under Davis' skin.
"I was frankly amused by Major's piece, and candidly it took me a second to remember who Major was," Davis said. He also noted that Owens accused him of voting in favor of the Iraq war, but that the October 2002 vote took place before he took office in January 2003.
"Frankly, it led me to wonder whether Huffington Post does anything other than print anything they're given. Literally, with all due respect to your publication, it literally led me to wonder, are there any standards other than I send you a PDF file, we'll spell check it and we'll put it up there?" he said.
Davis is noncommittal about whether he'll run for Congress in Virginia. But that's not his only option, depending on the outcome of the fall election. Conservative writer John Fund on Monday floated Davis as a possible Justice Department appointee in a Romney administration.
Davis was bullish about Romney's chances: "I think the Democrats underestimated Romney. I think there was a belief that Obama would go into these conventions with a 10-point lead."
But he added an echo of the critique that Daniels leveled in April.
"Romney still needs to make the sale that he has a credible plan to create shared prosperity in this country," Davis said.
The interview wrapped up, and Davis headed off to appear on Fox News with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). His biggest dilemma, he said, was whether to wear a tie.
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