- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

With the primary season less than two months away, black voters have yet to unite behind a single Democratic challenger to President Bush — something that hasn’t happened in 20 years.

The mass indecision of black voters at this point in the campaign season hasn’t occurred since 1984, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran a strong campaign in the Democratic primary, political analysts say. The expectation that the Congressional Black Caucus would set the tone for which Democratic candidate to support is waning, with the 39 caucus members equally fractured.

More than half the members of the caucus have withheld their endorsements; another 16 have dispersed them among eight of the nine candidates in the field. Usually at this time in the election cycle a majority swell of support is evident among black voters.

“In 1988, the black community was united behind Jesse Jackson early, and in 1992 and 1996, they were overwhelmingly behind Bill Clinton, and Al Gore in 2000,” said Donna Brazile, political analyst and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute.

“By September 11, 1999, Al Gore had locked up all but two members of the Black Caucus. But that came with a lot of hard work,” said Ms. Brazile, who managed Mr. Gore’s campaign.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois are the only black candidates and have caused the Democratic candidates to make early inroads into the black community and the caucus.

But blacks don’t see them doing as well as Mr. Jackson did in his two bids for the White House, said David Bositis, chief researcher for the liberal Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies.

“I think black voters are looking for someone who can beat Bush and right now it is not clear who that person will be, and Black Caucus members are reflecting where the black population is,” Mr. Bositis said.

Among the Democrats, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has picked up the most Black Caucus endorsements so far with four. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts each have three. And Mrs. Moseley Braun has support from two members — Reps. Danny K. Davis and Bobby L. Rush, both from her home state of Illinois.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Wesley Clark, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Mr. Sharpton have each received one endorsement. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio is the only candidate not to have received any support from the caucus despite the fact that many black lawmakers say he is right on the issues of limiting free trade to protect American jobs and regulating prescription drug costs to help seniors.

Some of the endorsements are actually startling to DNC insiders.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, has endorsed Mr. Clark, a former general. Ms. Brazile said it was “shocking” that Mr. Rangel didn’t endorse Mr. Gephardt who has served in the House with him for more than 20 years.

“I like Dick Gephardt more than any other presidential candidate probably in the last 20 years,” Mr. Rangel said in an interview.

“But when Gephardt voted for this war — you know I don’t get hurt politically too often — that really stunned me because he was supposed to negotiate something that we all could afford and agree with,” he said.

He said he supported Mr. Clark because, “We’ve got a guy who is putting on combat gear and riding in fighter jets like he was in combat and killing us all with rhetoric, and I don’t think that Mr. Bush could put on that uniform with Wesley Clark standing next to him.”

Mr. Bositis used statistics to add some reasoning to Mr. Rangel’s endorsement and pare down some of the field.

“No member of the House has won since James A. Garfield in 1876, the last three Democratic presidents were all from the South and the last general [Dwight D. Eisenhower] won in 1950.”

Ms. Brazile said indecision among black voters is not uncommon at all during an election in which there is no Democrat incumbent in the White House and no obvious front-runner among the candidates.

“The problem is similar to 1984 when Jesse [Jackson] ran the first time and the black community was split throughout the election,” Ms. Brazile said.

Endorsements from the CBC will be key for the candidates in this vast field to gain a needed push and solidify a black voting block necessary to win the nomination, Ms. Brazile said. But former CBC chairman Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said it is folly to think the caucus would be unanimous in its support.

“I have always thought it was a mistake for people to think that the entire caucus should settle on one candidate. I don’t see or expect all whites to get behind one person, and there is no reason to think blacks will,” Mr. Clyburn said.

Mr. Clyburn’s endorsement is the one most coveted by the Democrats as South Carolina will be the first southern state to hold a primary Feb. 3. The state, where nearly 50 percent of the electorate is black, is also seen as the best early test of strength among black voters, the most consistent voting block for Democrats.

A poll conducted among South Carolina Democrats from Nov. 20 to 23 by the Feldman Group Inc. showed Mr. Edwards leading with 17 percent, followed by Mr. Sharpton with 12 percent, who is the leading candidate among black voters in the state. Twenty-two percent of those polled were undecided.

Mr. Clyburn said he has been courted by all of the candidates, but added that the influence of the South Carolina primary has been overblown.

“The only reason people say that is because it is viewed as a Deep South state, and people look at the demographics as being in line with the voting block Democrats need to win,” Mr. Clyburn said.

“But I don’t think it’s any different than Delaware or Missouri who have primaries on the same day. A person could lose South Carolina and still be in play in this game, because like football, it’s a long season.”

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