The Rev. Al Sharpton says he doesn’t need the Democratic Party’s support to capture its 2004 presidential nomination, as he continues to rile the party’s establishment by disparaging liberal icons Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
“I don’t need [the Democratic Party] at all,” Mr. Sharpton said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. “We win or lose by our delegates. I think there will be an infrastructure that we build that will put us on the ballot.
“People don’t realize that this will come down to delegates. The party is supposed to be objective when it comes to selecting a candidate.”
As to Mr. Gore’s claim to the black vote, Mr. Sharpton said: “Why should Al Gore have our vote? They look at it as their vote, instead of dealing with our issues.”
Mr. Sharpton also criticized Mr. Clinton for blaming other Democrats for failing to deliver a strong message in November’s midterm elections: “It was him who should have delivered that message,” he said.
As for Mr. Sharpton’s predictions of a delegate-bound party that will have to respect him, that may be on the mark, said Edward Blum, an adjunct scholar at the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.
“If this guy gets in the primary, he can win a state like North Carolina or Louisiana,” said Mr. Blum, who wrote an opinion piece last week for the National Review on the political heft of Mr. Sharpton.
Mr. Blum said two primary victories, which would most likely occur in states with large black populations, would put Mr. Sharpton in a position to give a major speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
But the party, according to sources, is weary of Mr. Sharpton’s criticism and ready to move on in its search for a catalyst to spark the black electorate.
“He has peaked” is the sentiment at the Democratic National Committee, according to an insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“He threatens us on everything, and he even used to have a lot of sway with people like [black commentator] Tavis Smiley, who is more moderate. But he has lost that. He hasn’t got the credibility that Jesse Jackson does.”
Mr. Sharpton also accused Democrats of waffling on the Iraq war issue, saying that while many Democrats voted along with President Bush’s Iraq policy, when they returned to their districts, they criticized the very same resolution they approved.
“I think that was political gymnastics at its best, where they go into Congress and vote for war, and then talk another game,” Mr. Sharpton said.
Several Democrats who have been mentioned as presidential contenders voted with President Bush to authorize the war, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
It has gotten to the point where more Republicans than Democrats believe in Mr. Sharpton.
“The party has to take his comments seriously, because he gets black voters,” said Armstrong Williams, a conservative black columnist and television personality.
“Al Sharpton is a force to be reckoned with, he is an individual. He is the only black leader who was willing to say that he respected [Secretary of State] Colin L. Powell, and he is willing to take on the Democratic Party.”
Mr. Sharpton stood up for Mr. Powell in the fall when several black figures, led by entertainer Harry Belafonte, likened Mr. Powell to a “house slave.”
A poll by the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion this week found Mr. Gore, at 31 percent, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, at 28 percent, are running almost even among potential voters for the 2004 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, while Mr. Sharpton received 1 percent.
Mr. Sharpton has already proven his ability to draw the black vote, which could eventually be his entree to higher esteem among national Democrats.
His primary bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1992 garnered him nearly 90 percent of the statewide black vote in New York, according to exit polls. In his 1994 challenge to Democratic incumbent Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Sharpton received more than 80 percent of the statewide black vote and 26 percent of the general vote.
“Clearly, the Democratic Party needs a large African-American turnout,” said Lee Miringoff, head of the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based polling institute. “So, certainly, there will be a Sharpton factor on the Democratic Party.”