- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

The Rev. Al Sharpton phoned me the other day to say Leon Panetta was talking about someone else when he said that the Democrats' presidential race "cannot be about hate."
Mr. Panetta, whom I recently interviewed about the Democratic presidential candidates, singled out the fiery, bombastic New York City civil-rights activist for some strong words of rebuke.
"I think most people put the Sharptons of the world in a certain category," Mr. Panetta said. "He has a chance to say his piece, but I don't think that's where the party is going to wind up. It's a free country and everybody can enter the race, but this is a race that cannot be about hate. It has to be about hope."
Mr. Sharpton initially declined to respond to the criticism, then changed his mind and called to say President Clinton's former chief of staff was not talking about him.
"I was told that he was not accusing me of hate. That's your conclusion," Mr. Sharpton said testily.
Although I asked Mr. Sharpton if he had spoken directly with Mr. Panetta about this, he danced around where he received his information.
"That is not what I am told is his conclusion," Mr. Sharpton said. "I am not going to divulge how I've come to that. I've fought hate all my life and will continue to."
That someone of Mr. Panetta's stature should dare to attack Mr. Sharpton is news in itself. The California Democrat has become the conscience of his party and is considered one of its most respected political figures. He and Mr. Clinton speak regularly.
It is very significant that he chose to criticize Mr. Sharpton this early in the presidential primary process. Mr. Sharpton's Democratic presidential rivals have been treating him with kid gloves, suggesting at various party events where they appear together with him that they want him to be their running mate. But beneath the gentle banter, some of their strategists have told me they fear Mr. Sharpton's angry, racially driven agenda and far-left-wing views will further polarize their party and drive swing and independent voters into Republican hands in 2004.
Mr. Panetta also has some other pointed advice for his party: Turn toward the political center or the Democrats will lose.
Take, for example, the Democratic Party's position on national security and the looming war in Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein: Mr. Panetta said it's murky and weak.
The Democrats need to "show that they are tough militarily in dealing with America's enemies," Mr. Panetta says, but that's not getting through to the electorate.
"If the Democrats make a fundamental decision that they want to win back the Congress and the presidency, then they have got to get their act together on these issues," he said.
"They have to define not only the issues that they stand for, but they've got to define the party that sits at the center," Mr. Panetta said. "That's what Clinton did. He was able to position the party at the center and that is where you win elections." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi take notice.
Instead, "all of [the Democratic presidential candidates] are kind of tiptoeing around the issues, and that makes the Democratic Party look weak in dealing with them."
No Democratic contender has staked out a tougher position on dealing with Saddam than Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. The rest of the pack (Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri) are either straddling the issue or, as in former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's case, going for the party's large anti-war vote.
And then there is the stature issue: Few of them have it.
So what does Mr. Panetta think about Mr. Edwards, the boyish-looking freshman who, until four years ago, had never held office before. Does he suffer from lack of experience?
"Executive experience is very important not absolutely essential, but it sure is important. In Congress you can bob, weave and duck responsibility, but as an executive you've got to know how to manage," he said.
Though Mr. Kerry is the front-runner (with Mr. Dean emerging as the wild card who could upset everyone's chances), Mr. Kerry's views on national security issues raise questions that could hurt him.
In a Feb. 9 speech in Boston, Mr. Kerry mentioned the recent bombing by terrorists in Bogata, Colombia, at Club Nogal. "It seems to be a renewal of a kind of chaos fueled partly by guerrillas who have legitimate complaints and the combination of drugs and war and the drug lords," he said.
"Legitimate complaints"? These Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorists killed 35 civilians in that attack. A week later, they murdered an American, kidnapped three others and tried to kill Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
No doubt FARC has complaints about the Uribe administration, but that does not justify terrorism. This is the kind of confused thinking Leon Panetta is talking about.
Mr. Kerry, if he is to stay a front-runner, has some explaining to do.
So does Mr. Sharpton, although you didn't hear it from Mr. Panetta.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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