WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party's nightmare is abstemiously breakfasting on oatmeal and skim milk. Al Sharpton, 47, is in fighting trim. He has lost the weight of a 10-year-old boy - 80-plus pounds - and is spoiling for a fight.
The Brooklyn-born and New York-based preacher-agitator thinks he has dethroned Jesse Jackson as the reigning heavyweight among African-American leaders. He will take his rhetorical flair - a street preacher at age 4, at 10 he toured with Mahalia Jackson and preached to 10,000 at the 1964 World's Fair - into the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. He will "raise a progressive agenda" and "energize minority voters" and "develop enough leverage to leverage the party."
"We" - his plural pronoun intermittently signals identification with Mr. Jackson - "went from 1988, being number two to Dukakis, to '96 in Chicago begging to get a primetime speech - which he didn't get. We can't tolerate that."
When reminded that every four years someone says Democrats can win by turning left, he serenely replies, "Well, I'm the someone this time." He says, "I'm better-known than Daschle and Gephardt" in inner cities and "I'm better-known now than Jackson was in 1982."
He says black radio is "much stronger" than when Mr. Jackson was running, there is Black Entertainment Television, and students and activists on the Internet. Furthermore, the Democrats' moving many primaries to early in 2004 will help him. It will reward name recognition and "in the base I'm trying to bring out, I'm well-known."
Now, picture the other candidates in 2004, mostly senators with their pretty red ties and not a hair out of place, decorously debating Mr. Sharpton, who talks like this: "In the language of the 'hood, Clinton pimp-slapped Jesse on Sister Souljah." Mr. Sharpton is talking about Mr. Clinton's 1992 criticism of a black rap singer to distance himself from, among others, Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Sharpton says Mr. Jackson, 60, has been his mentor, friend and "surrogate father" but now is an exhausted volcano, viewed by young blacks as "an establishment figure." Besides, he says, since Mr. Jackson acknowledged fathering a child with an aide, he has lost the unlimited access he had to black churches.
Mr. Sharpton compares Mr. Jackson to Muhammad Ali: Great once, can't fight anymore. He says Mr. Jackson learned from Martin Luther King during a few years of association, but he, Mr. Sharpton, has benefited from observing 30 years of Mr. Jackson's mistakes. Parricide isn't pretty.
Mr. Sharpton is free of reverence and reticence. Referring to the ex-president's office: "It is appropriate that Bill Clinton is in Harlem so he can welcome" those tossed off welfare by the legislation he signed in 1996. Mr. Sharpton says all 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus are, or can be, threatened by insurgents. The 38 "must side with me or I'll support the insurgents."
The "progressive agenda" is mostly the left's leftovers - no death penalty, less incarceration, more generous welfare - with one addition. On Sept. 10, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sharpton and others were close to forcing Democrats to face the issue of reparations for slavery. Blown away, the issue is coming back. Mr. Sharpton will see to that.
His critics will see to the revival of interest in what has been called "Sharpton's Chappaquiddick," his riotous support of Tawana Brawley, the black 15-year-old who in 1987 fabricated a story of rape and abuse by some white men. She was thoroughly discredited. Mr. Sharpton stops well short of remorse: "I did what I believed."
Today, he says, he shares some of the cultural conservatism - "I never knew I was underprivileged until I went to a sociology class at Brooklyn College" - of churchgoing African-Americans. He denounces "decadence and low expectations in our community," saying "this hip-hop thing has a lot to do with it - glorifying decadence."
A long-distance runner - hyperkinetic, he travels incessantly, "mostly to B and C cities" like Flint, Mich., and Tallahassee, Fla., "because I'm known in A cities" - he has put away the jogging suits he wore to hide his previous bulk. In his chalk-striped gray flannel he is more conservatively dressed than many in the Four Seasons hotel dining room.
"I am conservative on everything but race," he declares with a straight face, a declaration somewhat vitiated by the fact that, for him, everything is race.
Sly, clever, witty, incapable of embarrassment and uninterested in the ceremonial politeness of national politics, Mr. Sharpton is going to have fun in 2004. Democrats, can't we all just get along? Give him at least a primetime convention speech. On reparations.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.