Sharpton inches closer to presidential ring

October 18, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- News alert: After much careful and agonizing consideration, the Rev. Al Sharpton is declaring his candidacy for the 2004 presidential race. Sort of.

At least, that's the impression I received on page 4 in Rev. Al's new political memoir, Al on America.

"And it is on those qualities that I am seeking the Presidency of the United States of America in 2004," he wrote.

Oh? Ever since his August 2001 news conference in which he announced formation of an exploratory committee, the leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network has played coy about whether he actually is going to run. Is he using the novel medium of a book to make his big announcement?

When I reached him by telephone, he answered that question with an absolute maybe.

"I am not officially declared as a candidate," he said, "but I am saying that I clearly want to run if we can put the campaign together."

Oh. But, I persisted. The book says "seeking." That sounds like "running" to me. "Are you making news here or not?" I asked.

Yes, he insisted. Before, he was only "exploring," he said. Now he is actively "seeking."

With obfuscation like that, the man is unquestionably well suited for politics.

But he doesn't want to announce too soon. For one thing, a lot of very strict and complex election campaign laws kick in as soon as you officially announce your candidacy.

For another, if you announce too soon, you run the risk of people getting tired of you. Rev. Al does not have to worry about that. Millions of Americans already are tired of him. He has, as political observers like to say, "baggage," particularly some episodes in which he fanned the flames of racial tension.

In the best known, he championed Tawana Brawley in 1987 after she claimed she was raped by a group of white men, including a prosecutor. A grand jury later decided she made up the story and Mr. Sharpton lost a defamation suit.

But, while it is easy to (a) chuckle or (b) groan at Mr. Sharpton, he is making himself difficult for Democrats to ignore. In a recent Zogby Poll, Mr. Sharpton tied for third place at about 5 percent behind Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman among a dozen potential Democratic candidates.

He is only encouraged, he notes, when all of the most-talked-about potential Democratic presidential candidates in Congress voted for the Iraq war powers resolution. The more they move to the right, Mr. Sharpton says, the more room they leave for him with the party's base.

Indeed, as much as some are turned off by Mr. Sharpton's style, others are energized by his populist appeal. He has become an important "man to see" for anyone who seeks Democratic votes in New York City.

As a presidential candidate, he could fill the role occupied by previous left-progressives like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, by Jerry Brown in 1992 and by Ralph Nader in 2000. For his base, Mr. Sharpton's value is like the old joke about the near-sighted javelin thrower: He probably won't win, but he keeps the crowd alert.

In that sense, Democratic Party leaders would be happy to have the votes that Mr. Sharpton could bring, unless he makes the rest of the crowd run for the exits.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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