SALT LAKE CITY — In her bid to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, Mia Love is the GOP's emblem of diversity this campaign year. She's reluctant to embrace the role, saying she doesn't let race or gender define her politics.
The 36-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, points to her policy stances as the reason for her success.
"I was elected mayor not because of my race or gender, not because I wear high heels, but because of the policies I put in place," Love said in a recent interview.
Polling shows Love with a slight lead over Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, a six-term incumbent. The race is still too close to call.
In a party that has struggled for decades to attract black voters, the daughter of Haitian immigrants included subtle nods to civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in her speech to the Republican National Convention in August.
"Our story has been told for over 200 years with small steps and giant leaps," she told the applauding delegates. "From a woman on a bus to a man with a dream, from the bravery of the greatest generation to the innovators and entrepreneurs of today, this is our story."
Love has made much of her family story, a hallmark of her stump speeches: Her parents legally immigrated to Brooklyn in the early 1970s, she says, with just $10 in their pockets. She says her father — who has toiled as a painter, janitor and school bus driver — taught her never to ask for a handout. Her parents became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1984.
A married mother of three, a Mormon and a tea party favorite, Love is the only woman among 11 black Republican House candidates in the Nov. 6 election. She and Vernon Parker, who is running in Arizona, are seen as the most likely winners among nine black GOP challengers.
Republicans, like Love herself, have focused more on her conservative values and agenda than her race.
"We need a party that is diverse based on our issues and not based on simply trying to find greater variety in the complexion," said Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, one of the two black Republicans now in the House.
While Love doesn't emphasize her race and gender, they are powerful factors in her bid to become a Republican member of Congress. Scott and Allen West of Florida were elected in 2010 as the first black Republicans in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma left in 2003.
Black Republicans have long been scarce in Congress. Of 26 black Republican House members since 1870, the vast majority served during the post-Civil War Reconstruction days. Scott and West, both tea party favorites, were swept into office as part of the GOP wave in 2010. West faces a tough re-election fight.
Love is getting support in her bid to focus on policies.
It would be a disservice to Love for Republicans to tout her candidacy in racial terms, said Artur Davis, a black former Democratic congressman from Alabama who switched parties and also spoke to the GOP convention.
"As a congresswoman, she would have so much more to offer: successful former mayor, the product of a successful immigration story and a thoughtful, dynamic conservative," Davis said.
Amid the nation's shifting demographics, the GOP has focused more on reaching out to Hispanics than black voters, who have supported President Barack Obama in overwhelming numbers.
To enter the history books, Love must topple Matheson, the son of a popular former governor, in a state where more than nine in 10 people are white. For a decade, a series of white Republican men have been unable to knock off Matheson, a fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat who has beaten far more recognizable names in Utah politics.
Since the convention, Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have helped Love raise money. Mitt Romney's son Josh is her campaign chairman.