One is the illegitimate offspring of a black laborer. The other is the son of a U.S. senator, rich and white. One is a liberal Democrat, the other a conservative Republican.
Yet Jesse Jackson and Marion G. (Pat) Robertson are often spoken of in one breath, as if they occupy opposite poles of the same magnetic field. Maybe it is because they are both Southerners, or Southern preachers, or because they are having a similar effect on the presidential campaign.
They form the campaign's rhythm section, stirring the masses and unsettling the party regulars. No one says, "Right on!" to Richard A. Gephardt or "Amen!" to Bob Dole.
"Both of them have the ability to articulate a burning idea," said Bert Lance, federal budget director in the Carter Administration and a friend of Jackson.
Neither Jackson nor Robertson has ever held political office. Robertson has never run before. Both men are considered long shots to win a nomination. But both could command enough support to determine whom their parties do nominate.
Although it is nearly two months before the first caucuses and primaries, people are beginning to describe Jackson and Robertson as kingmakers.
Already, anxious party strategists are asking what will Pat and Jesse want in return for their support. A place on the ticket? A job in the Cabinet?
And, already, their influence is being felt as rival candidates defer to them through clenched teeth, giving Jackson and Robertson virtual safe passage in debate after campaign debate.
Meanwhile, their combative campaign styles, blaming one class of people for another's miseries, cause plenty of consternation among traditionalists who fret about party unity.
Jackson and Robertson are the defiant ones, said Times political analyst William Schneider. "They trade in us-versus-them politics, as opposed to the consensus politics that the party leadership espouses."
Jackson tends to be at his rhetorical best when he is assailing U.S. military might or excoriating American business for shutting down factories and foreclosing on family farms.
Rails Against Divorce
Robertson is most effective when he is railing against divorce, abortion and left-wing educators and when he is sharing his vision "of a time in America when husbands love their wives and a time when little children will be able to pray in school."
Democratic strategists worry that Jackson's unrepentant liberalism could doom the party to its fifth defeat in six presidential elections. Republicans are concerned that Robertson's bluenose social agenda is unacceptable to party centrists. But they worry more about the consequences of alienating the two candidates.
With their righteous indignation, their quotations from scripture and their uncomplicated solutions to world problems, Jackson and Robertson have become too popular to offend. They have brought too many new voters into the fold.
Moreover, it is much too soon to write them off as contenders. It is not clear yet whether Jackson can realize his dream of a multi-ethnic Rainbow Coalition spreading well beyond his urban black base. Nor is it possible to tell whether Robertson's cohort of born-again Christians is capable of upsetting one of the Republican front-runners, Vice President George Bush or Kansas Sen. Dole, in one of the important early primaries.
Jackson High in Polls
But among the six Democrats, Jackson regularly scores the highest in public opinion polls in the percentage of people who, at this early stage, say they would vote for him. And Robertson has come in first or second in several Republican popularity contests around the country.
On the other hand, there appears to be little middle ground: The polls also show Jackson and Robertson far ahead of the other 10 major presidential candidates in so-called negative ratings, indicating that there are many prospective voters who actively dislike them.
In many ways, Robertson and Jackson are not alike.
"Pat Robertson is not fighting the same battles I am," said Jackson during a recent appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. "Robertson is a traditional Republican. There were never any barriers locking him out of the party. He was never denied the right to vote. He's never known those kinds of experiences."
But Robertson, a former television evangelist, is not a traditional Republican. He has been in several bitter skirmishes with party regulars in Michigan, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere. He may be white and high-born, but he has embraced what many people of his background regard as a cracker's faith. Judging from some of the polls, the prospect of a fundamentalist preacher in the White House may not sit well with traditional Republicans, both high-born and low.
Although Robertson and Jackson both came to politics from the ministry, they have followed very different theological paths.