- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

Former White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, in a sharp critique of the Democratic presidential candidates, says the Rev. Al Sharpton preaches hate and that the others are making the party look weak.
If Democrats have any hope of winning the White House next year, "They have got to get their act together," Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Panetta, former President Bill Clinton's top adviser, made it clear in an interview last week that he dislikes the fiery civil rights activist Mr. Sharpton's brand of racial politics and is worried about the impact of his candidacy on the Democratic Party.
"I think most people put the Sharptons of the world in a certain category. He has a chance to say his piece, but I don't think that's where the party is going to wind up," Mr. Panetta said.
"It's a free country and everybody can enter the race, but this is a race that cannot be about hate. This race has to be about hope," he said.
Mr. Sharpton's campaign staff did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.
Mr. Panetta's surprisingly strong criticism of Mr. Sharpton so early in the presidential election cycle follows a string of blistering broadsides from Democratic-leaning journals such as the New Republic and the American Prospect against the New York City preacher and now presidential contender.
Mr. Sharpton's record of racial attacks on Democratic opponents in previous campaigns, and his potential to attract a large share of the black vote in the primaries, has been called by his critics "a potential nightmare" for the party.
Until now, however, no top Democrat or presidential rival has dared to criticize Mr. Sharpton on the record. Mr. Panetta's sharp rebuke breaks the party's silence.
But Mr. Panetta's criticism went beyond Mr. Sharpton to the positions being taken by the other Democratic candidates on national security, the prospect of war in Iraq and the political direction of the party in general.
Mr. Panetta said the party's presidential hopefuls have not staked out tough enough positions on Iraq and Saddam Hussein's weapons buildup.
"On the war, there are ways the Democrats can show that they are tough militarily in dealing with our enemies, but that we can be a lot more effective in using policy and diplomacy as a world leader," he said.
"Clearly President Bush has provided an opening here for the Democrats. But all of them are kind of tiptoeing around the issues, and that makes the Democratic Party look weak in dealing with them," he said.
"Those are the challenges we face. If the Democrats make a fundamental decision that they want to win the Congress back and the presidency back, then they have got to get their act together on these issues," he said.
The other concern Mr. Panetta has with his party is its political shift to the left as it approaches the 2004 election. He believes it needs to move toward the political center, as Mr. Clinton did in the 1992 election to attract independents and swing voters.
"They have to define not only the issues that they stand for, but they've got to define the party that sits at the political center and stands for working families and Main Street," he said.
"What Clinton did is he was able to position the party at the center, and that is where you win elections," Mr. Panetta said.
But with the exception of Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida, both of whom are running as conservative Democrats, the rest of the presidential pack is positioned on the liberal end of the party's political spectrum: Mr. Sharpton, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.
Last week a voter survey conducted by pollster John Zogby showed that Mr. Kerry is the favorite in the New Hampshire primary, with Mr. Dean running second and Mr. Gephardt in third place. Everyone else is in the single digits.
"There are going to be a lot of candidates in this race, and it's going to have to shake down, but that's not all bad," Mr. Panetta said. "The person who emerges from this group may be that much stronger as a result."

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