WASHINGTON -- By continuing to criticize a rap singer defended by Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton is signaling his belief that he can win black votes without allying himself with the controversial civil rights leader.
Mr. Clinton refused yesterday to tone down his criticism last weekend of Sister Souljah, saying on "CBS This Morning" that "if you want to be president you've got . . . to stand up for what you think is right."
But Mr. Jackson won't yield either, and last night attacked Mr. Clinton for seeking to "divide" voters.
Their fight isn't so much over what a rap singer said but about the direction and strategy of Mr. Clinton's campaign. For some time, Clinton strategists have argued that he should demonstrate independence and help capture white suburban Democratic voters by breaking with Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson, though, is saying the three-way race with President Bush and independent Ross Perot creates a "new math" that will give Mr. Clinton a victory if he can unite the traditional Democratic urban and minority base.
"Bill Clinton's challenge is to get 38 percent of the vote in a tight three-person race," Mr. Jackson said on CNN's Crossfire.
Mr. Clinton's criticism of Sister Souljah was a surprise, coming toward the end of a speech Saturday before Mr. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Mr. Clinton specifically cited her remarks in the Washington Post May 13 following the Los Angeles riot. "I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" she was quoted as saying.
Mr. Jackson was stunned. The coalition had invited her to participate Friday in a "youth empowerment summit" that was part of an effort by Mr. Jackson to "motivate [her] toward more legitimate political action," said David A. Bositis, a political scientist who was present.
Mr. Jackson's sons were on the panel, Yusef Jackson serving as moderator, and they "politely . . . said a number of critical things about things she had said" in the Post article, said Mr. Bositis, senior research associate at the non-partisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The singer denied having said all the things attributed to her, a point Mr. Jackson seized upon in accusing Mr. Clinton of "very bad judgment" in criticizing her. "She represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people," he said. "She should receive an apology."
On the "Crossfire" program Mr. Jackson went even further in his criticism, accusing Mr. Clinton of trying to "use our platform to prove that he was tough." He complained that Mr. Clinton "chose to attempt in a strange way to divide," while Mr. Jackson himself "sought to unify."
A close associate of Mr. Jackson, Ronald Walters, said yesterday Mr. Clinton's comments about Sister Souljah amounted to "really crass political use of a sincere invitation" by the coalition "to reach out to him."
"I think he has been trying to send signals that he can stand up to Jesse Jackson," said Mr. Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. He cited as further evidence Mr. Clinton's absence last Thursday from a luncheon sponsored in Baltimore by a group of black publishers and editors.
Agreeing with Mr. Bositis, Mr. Walters said Mr. Jackson "is trying to build a bridge to" the singer "and other rappers because there's a realization among black leaders that they're a powerful force in black culture right now."
Not all black leaders reacted as angrily as Mr. Walters. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, a Maryland state legislator who supported Mr. Jackson's bid for the presidency in 1988 and is supporting Mr. Clinton this year, said criticism of the singer was a minor matter compared to more important issues like Mr. Clinton's stand on urban aid and health care.
He noted there has not "been good chemistry between" Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jackson "for some time."
But Mr. Rawlings said he was "concerned" about Mr. Clinton's refusal to support a costly urban aid program sought by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Mr. Jackson.
If such concerns mount among black officials, it could cost Mr. Clinton the black voter support he believes he can receive without Mr. Jackson's help. Mr. Bositis sees advantages and risks to Mr. Clinton's strategy.
On the one hand, he says, Mr. Clinton may not have to do anything in particular to stimulate black voter turnout. Blacks are going to vote heavily regardless of the presidential race because 13 new black congressional districts and as many as 100 black state legislative districts are being created this year. Since many of the districts are in the South, Mr. Clinton's chances of taking Southern states are increased, particularly in a three-way race in which Mr. Perot and Mr. Bush divide white votes.
But this assumes that Mr. Clinton will get the black vote. Mr. Bositis says in conversations with "blacks connected to business" he has found support for Mr. Perot.