Black political activists in Baltimore are content to let Democratic presidential contenders avoid promises and rhetoric this year that might burden them as champions of black special interests.
But black leaders also caution that Democratic candidates, while walking a fine line to avoid getting tagged as captives of minority interests, still must convince large numbers of blacks that it is worth their time and effort to vote for them.
"Any Democrat would lose if he came out with a specific black agenda," said black businessman Frank Conaway, who supports former U.S.Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. "A specific black agenda would spell defeat."
"The only way you can get a Democrat in the White House is if you get white votes in the South and the suburbs," chimes in Meldon Hollis, a lawyer and outspoken black civic leader, who supports Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
With Maryland's turn at bat Tuesday, Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods will provide this year's first test of the relationship between northern urban blacks and the Democratic field.
Black activists acknowledged, in a series of interviews in Baltimore, that many black voters may sit out this year's White House campaign because they are disappointed that Jesse Jackson declined to run in the presidential contest.
Some blacks said they still hope that New York. Gov. Mario Cuomo can be talked into entering the race or be brokered into the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York in July.
Talk of massive numbers of blacks turning their backs on Democratic candidates alarms party leaders. Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown said it will not happen because blacks are aware of the importance of the election to them.
However, Ronald Walters, a political science professor at predominantly-black Howard University, said he anticipates more than a 5 percent cut in the black turnout this year. "Black voters have very little in this group to encourage them . . ."
Blacks have stayed away before, and taken Democratic candidates down to defeat.
Several of Baltimore's black activists said they are painfully aware that Jackson could not be elected. Even if Cuomo ran, he also would have to walk a tightrope between mobilizing black support and conveying a more middle-class message, they said.
Democratic political managers have passed the word that they do not want their candidates to develop an identification as champions of special interests at the risk of losing support from white voters -- a predicament that has bedeviled their party in the past.
"We really don't want to pander to any group," said Brian Chamberlain, state coordinator for the Tsongas campaign. At the same time, however, Democratic candidates must "earn the support" of black voters, said Gerald Austin, newly named as senior adviser to Mr. Tsongas. Mr. Austin was Jackson's presidential campaign manager in 1988.
Mr. Tsongas is putting most of his effort into affluent white suburban counties.
But his wife, Niki, made a surprise visit Wednesday to a meeting of the East End Forum Democratic Club in a black neighborhood in East Baltimore. "Paul is a liberal Democrat," she said. "His message is one of economic renewal, good secure jobs at good wages, but he tells the truth. That can only happen through a strong and thriving private sector."