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Sharpton Often Dazzles but Also Disappoints

November 26, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton was scarcely out of his overcoat and into his speech at a medical school on the Upper East Side when praise began ringing out across the auditorium.

When the Democratic presidential candidate pronounced his disdain for "Negro amnesia" -- an affliction of African Americans who forget their roots -- the room full of black psychiatrists and professionals laughed in agreement. "Mmm-hmm ... Come on!" When he pummeled President Bush for spending more to revitalize downtown Baghdad than downtown America, dozens raised their voices in affirmation. "That's right, Rev!"

By the time Sharpton finished, most of the 250 men and women in the room were on their feet, applauding.

Then a curious thing happened. After posing for a few snapshots and shaking four or five hands, Sharpton ducked out the door. This was a paid speaking engagement, he explained later, not the place for political appeals. So the Brooklyn minister left, without calling for volunteers, without appealing for campaign donations, without asking for a single vote, from a group that seemed ripe for the asking.

On the campaign trail, an insurgent such as Alfred C. Sharpton Jr. can't be expected to follow the rules. His goal, after all, is not so much to win the Democratic presidential nomination as to continue his slow climb from a master of confrontational street theater into a national spokesman for minorities and the poor. At times, he has moved nimbly toward that goal. He has been so witty and incisive in debates with his eight Democratic rivals that he has been widely acclaimed in the mainstream media as Campaign 2004's resident provocateur.

He insisted that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman say whether he would negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. (Lieberman said he would not.) He slapped Democratic front-runner Howard Dean of Vermont for once equivocating on affirmative action and for "sounding more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson" when he appealed to Southern voters with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.

And he has kept his opponents and audiences laughing. When Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts took a tumble after last month's Detroit debate, Sharpton didn't miss a beat: "I saw Lieberman push him!"

Yet Sharpton has reached less than 5% in most national polls and his "negative" ratings remain higher than any other candidate. He shortcuts meetings with some voters and -- after a change of campaign managers -- has only begun building the sort of grass-roots organization that would seem to be a street activist's metier.

Does it matter?

It does to those who believe Sharpton has a chance of at least approaching the performance of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, another African American preacher, who changed the dynamics of presidential politics in 1984 and 1988. By winning several primaries and building a wide coalition that included support from black and white voters, Jackson assured an African American voice inside the Democratic establishment. Jackson's strong showings and riveting 1984 convention speech ("Keep hope alive!") proved a black candidate could not be ignored.

Sharpton has said that Jackson's campaigns set an example for success: "He did more in not being elected than some people have in winning." But that groundbreaking fervor is nearly two decades old and probably can't be regained by Sharpton in 2004, political experts say.

"Jackson's campaign in 1984 was more of a movement, with almost a religious zeal to it," said Vincent Hutchings, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. "The novelty of an African American running for president is not so pronounced anymore."

In one recent week, candidate Sharpton skipped his only political event. He spent his time preaching, delivering a eulogy, making fund-raising calls and holding campaign meetings. When asked the nature of the meetings, he replied, "None of your business."

On a Thursday night, the Broadway Democrats gathered in a Columbia University auditorium to hear about each of the nine presidential candidates. The neighborhood club had advertised Sharpton as the only contender who would appear in person. But just a few minutes into the meeting, Sharpton canceled, sending his lawyer as his surrogate. Several in the audience groaned. "I was really disappointed," said Colin Blair, a 19-year-old religion student at Columbia, who wore a blue Sharpton T-shirt.

Later that night, Sharpton got only three votes in a straw poll of the tweedy, multiethnic club. Blair and his brother, who are white, said they are still primed to work for Sharpton, if only they can find an office where they can volunteer.

Sharpton also bobbled a meeting last spring with a group of African American political scientists in Oakland, charming some but alienating others.

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