FORT MADISON, Iowa — In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran for President as a protester. Now, in an effort to expand his base, he is running as a politician.
Jackson's angry candidacy four years ago mainly attracted blacks who were tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. This time, from the Deep South to the Midwest, Jackson is preaching a populist message to whites as well.
After he speaks, he wades into their midst, grabbing hands and saying: "I need your help, I need your help."
They hug him and ask for autographs. And though some of the whites probably are turning out because Jackson is a celebrity, political professionals believe that their warm response to what the candidate is saying could mean that he is on the verge of changing from a black civil rights activist into a bona fide political leader.
"The issues Jesse is talking about--economic justice, the problems of the family farmer, drug abuse among young people--cut across lines of color," said Bert Lance, former adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a close observer of Southern politics.
Showing a maturity that was missing in 1984, Jackson is ignoring slights and avoiding disputes over party rules, focusing instead on rounding up endorsements and building state organizations.
Last week in Baton Rouge, La., he courted the support of Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who said he is considering joining Jackson's exploratory committee.
Edwards talked about Jackson's "understanding of the problems in our state's oil and gas industry." But what Jackson really seemed to understand is that Edwards is facing a tough reelection this fall and badly needs black support to shore up his eroding standing with white voters.
The payoff for Jackson could be not only the support of a white Southern governor but crucial fund-raising help.
In Iowa, site of a key test in the presidential nominating process next February, Jackson is being enthusiastically received by dispossessed farmers and unemployed workers.
Freed from the careful image-building that constrains his lesser-known Democratic opponents, Jackson revs up the rhetoric, accusing the Reagan Administration of abandoning the family farmer and corporations of not sharing profits with their workers.
"Repeat after me," Jackson shouted at groups of white meatpacking plant workers in Iowa and Nebraska over the weekend.
"Save the children! Support the workers! Heal the land! Invest in America!"
The chants were returned again and again by his listeners, who urged him to formally announce his 1988 candidacy.
"He is making sense to us while these other guys are trying to make sense of their position papers," said Tom Anderson, a white Democrat in Fort Madison who finds the other presidential hopefuls too bland.
"He is keeping faith with the common man," said Everett Coons, a retired white engineer who heard Jackson deliver a rousing speech last week in Monroe, La.
In Nebraska, Jackson shared the podium with another undeclared Democratic candidate, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is considered one of the country's best political orators.
Biden shook his head in amazement as he watched Jackson work up the crowd of 500 workers who have been locked out of a meatpacking plant in a contract dispute.
'Let's March Together'
"So my friends, don't let them break your spirits," Jackson preached. "Let's march together. . . . There is a higher power, a higher power. And we will win. We will win!" Biden, trying to move into his own remarks as the cheers for Jackson continued, said: "Uh, I'm not sure what I can say after that."
The podium isn't the only place where Jackson is impressing people these days. With the withdrawal from the Democratic race of Gary Hart, Jackson is the front-runner in the latest national polls.
But that is largely because of his high name recognition in this early stage and a number of factors will make it difficult for Jackson to maintain that position and win his party's nomination.
He does not have the potent fund-raising ability of several of the other Democrats, for one thing, and his lack of government experience is also a handicap.
Moreover, his demagogic style of speaking has made him a controversial figure. In a recent nationwide Los Angeles Times Poll, 71% of Democrats questioned said they would not be inclined to support Jackson.
But, as he seeks to add frustrated whites to his black base, there is no question that Jackson will have a major say in his party's agenda in 1988.
"Because of the Democratic Party's dependence on the black vote, if nothing else, Jesse is in a unique position. Anybody who underestimates him is being unrealistic," said Lance, who is advising Jackson informally.
"He has matured as a political leader," Lance said. "He is taking advice and will not allow himself to become the issue."