- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2003

The Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential bid is sending shudders through the Democrats' rank and file, who fear that his fiery, racial rhetoric could divide their party and lead to defeat in 2004.
Almost 10 months before the presidential primary contests begin, the black civil rights activist is coming under surprisingly sharp attack from Democratic-leaning journals and party activists, who say his agenda is rooted in racial polarization that poses a "nightmarish" scenario for Democrats next year.
Few Democrats especially the spokesmen for the six other presidential contenders want to talk on the record about what they think of Mr. Sharpton's prospective presidential candidacy. "Do you really think I'm going to respond to this?" asked a spokesman for one of Mr. Sharpton's rivals.
But privately some of them worry Mr. Sharpton's brand of racial politics will tar their party and repel white Democrats in the South and independent swing voters across the country.
"This is not good for our party. This could take us back to the 1980s when Jesse Jackson's candidacy divided the electorate and led us down the road to defeat," said a Democratic adviser and campaign strategist who did not want to be identified.
Last week, lengthy articles in the New Republic and the American Prospect magazines delivered the strongest attacks yet on Mr. Sharpton, though they do not quote any Democratic official by name.
"A strong showing by Sharpton in even a few primaries … could lead to nightmarish complications for the eventual Democratic nominee," said the American Prospect. "Allying with Sharpton could alienate white moderates and swing voters, but failing to seek his support will likely lead to a major blowup with Sharpton that could ultimately drive down black support and lead to lingering intraparty divisions."
The New Republic said that "party strategists are exceedingly nervous about Sharpton taking his racialist political theatre to the national stage."
Mr. Sharpton may soon have some competition for the overwhelmingly Democratic black vote. Former Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun of Illinois plans to run, and some say she is being urged to do so to divide blacks and prevent Mr. Sharpton from winning key primaries in the South, where blacks make up 40 percent or more of the Democratic vote.
Party officials and other Democratic groups, who handle questions about Mr. Sharpton gingerly, say they are unaware of any concern over his candidacy, or refused all comment.
"He's one of the candidates who will be speaking to our winter meeting this month, including Mosely-Braun. This just shows the strength and diversity of our party that the Republicans clearly do not have," said Guillermo Meneses, the Democratic National Committee's chief spokesman.
Some Democrats think the latest attacks on Mr. Sharpton are overdone, even hysterical in their rhetoric.
"I think this is way overhyped. Everybody has a right to run. If there are candidates who are unhappy with his positions on things, they should say so," said Harold Ickes, the deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
"There was a lot of hand-wringing about Jesse Jackson in 1988, and he was very controversial in some of his remarks, but it is now generally agreed that he brought tremendous strength to the party," Mr. Ickes said.
"It will be interesting to see how African-Americans vote in the primaries. They are no different than anyone else and do not want to throw their vote away. They will want to vote for a candidate who can win the nomination and the election," he said.
Randy Button, Tennessee Democratic state chairman, chose his words carefully when asked about Mr. Sharpton's brand of politics.
"I don't think we're going to get anywhere by being divisive or splitting each other up. I hope that the candidate will be smart enough to understand that," Mr. Button said.
But others point to Mr. Sharpton's low standing in the polls and dismiss him as a marginal candidate who will attract relatively little support.
"I don't see him being any big problem for the Democrats because he's not going to get the nomination," said David Bositis, pollster for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on issues of interest to black Americans.
"I know from my pollings that African-Americans have a very mixed view about Sharpton. I asked about him in 2000, and 32 percent had an unfavorable view of him and 42 percent had a favorable view," Mr. Bositis said.
More recently, a Quinnipiac University poll of 1,307 registered voters conducted between Jan. 29 and Feb. 3 showed Mr. Sharpton attracting only 6 percent of the vote.

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