EVERY four years the ritual mating dance between Jesse Jackson and the Democratic presidential candidate is exquisitely choreographed as the "Romeo and Juliet" ballet.
And with the same doomed finale.
Mr. Jackson danced with Fritz Mondale -- one tantalizing step forward, one step back -- all the way to the 1984 Reagan landslide.
His tango with Mike Dukakis was more torturous. Mr. Jackson bickered with Mr. Dukakis and aides through endless meetings, pouted when he was snubbed in favor of Lloyd Bentsen as V.P. choice, then made a 50-minute convention spellbinder in which he gave Mr. Dukakis one cool paragraph.
Now Bill Clinton has told Mr. Jackson, in effect, "I'll sit this waltz out."
Not only has Mr. Clinton ducked the quadrennial fox trot with Mr. Jackson. He gave Mr. Jackson a public shove that's escalating into warfare.
Each time the combatants jack up the rhetoric -- shades of Saddam and Mr. Bush before Desert Storm -- they edge closer to an open rumble.
"A sneak attack, a ploy," Mr. Jackson seethed on CBS Sunday. "We reached out and Mr. Clinton pushed us off."
Earlier Mr. Jackson told the New York Times, "This was purely to appeal to conservative whites by attacking Mr. Jackson and isolating Jackson."
Governor Clinton flared, "It seems because of my race, and my presidential candidacy, I can't take a stand against ideas I find abhorrent."
Clearly they are near a blowup undreamed of in Mondale and Dukakis campaigns.
A Clinton-Jackson feud carries risks and advantages for '92 Democrats -- and goes to the heart of the politics of race shaping the party for 35 years.
Political mavens went bonkers estimating the firepower in a Clinton-Jackson showdown: Would Mr. Jackson disrupt next month's Democratic convention? Would he jump to Ross Perot? Would the loss of Mr. Jackson and low black turnout cost Mr. Clinton big-city votes and the South?
Or did Mr. Clinton gain with suburban and Southern whites who regard Jackson with fear and loathing?
Skip, for the moment, political mumbo-jumbo. In this moral argument, Jesse Jackson is wrong, Bill Clinton is right.
Sure, Mr. Jackson correctly suspects the Clinton campaign contrived the explosive place and time to pick a fight -- a blast against rap singer Sister Souljah in front of Jesse's Rainbow Coalition.
It was a rare, bold move for Mr. Clinton. He's often ruefully said of his boyhood role as referee between his mother and alcoholic, violent stepfather, "It left me a peacemaker, someone who avoids conflict."
But the Clinton-Jackson fuse has been long burning. We caught a whiff of powder when Mr. Clinton blew up on a TV show at a false report Mr. Jackson had endorsed Tom Harkin -- "a betrayal, a stab in the back," bellowed Mr. Clinton. More dynamite was added when Mr. Jackson cozied up to Jerry Brown in the New York primary.
So, yes, the rupture between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Clinton was inevitable. But when the governor jumped on Sister Souljah's shrill call to arms, he broke a Democratic commandment: Thou shalt not criticize minorities who talk volatile, hate-filled trash.
No wonder Mr. Jackson was startled. He'd gone unscathed by Democratic leaders despite his "Hymietown" remark and refusal to denounce Nation of Islam ranter Louis Farrakhan.
Now Mr. Jackson argues Sister Souljah deserved a free pass. "Equating black and white racism is another thing," said Mr. Jackson. "Black people do not have the institutional power to be racist; we don't have the power to lock people out."
That's poppycock. Racist bilge is racist bilge whether sung by Sister Souljah or David Duke.
Jesse Jackson is the Democrats' most eloquent voice, the conscience of the party's downtrodden. But this time he's wrong. And Bill Clinton -- even if his motives for this ruckus were well-calculated -- is right.
Sure, Mr. Jackson can cause Mr. Clinton major grief. He'll flirt with a switch to Mr. Perot. Or Mr. Jackson could turn the Democratic convention into bedlam by being nominated for vice president with the help of Jerry Brown delegates.
No doubt Mr. Jackson's desertion would hurt Clinton. Black primary turnout was down 33 to 50 percent in Pennsylvania, New York and California without Mr. Jackson on the ballot.
Despite the alliance of such young black pols as Georgia's John Lewis and Mississippi's Mike Espy, Mr. Clinton runs a big gamble snubbing Jackson.
In the end, I suspect Mr. Clinton gains desperately needed respect from middle-class whites and perhaps some blacks. He demonstrated he'd shake a fist at his party's special interests and sacred wing, an act you won't see George Bush and Dan Quayle emulate.
For once, Mr. Clinton spoke plainly and with guts -- Perot-style. Mr. Clinton showed Democrats they're healthier battling racial cant head-on.
And their presidential candidate doesn't have to dance in ritual homage to Jesse Jackson.
Somewhere, Mr. Mondale and Mr. Dukakis must be cheering.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.