Al Sharpton's desperation is showing.
His recent attacks on presidential candidate Barack Obama and his threat to withhold his support have exposed the trick behind Sharpton's magic act. His audience is leaving the tent and Sharpton is scrambling for relevancy.
Sharpton has been challenging Obama's credentials in the black community and saying that Obama is the darling of white leadership, according to Democratic sources.
Sharpton told CBS News that he is withholding his endorsement until after his National Action Network summit next month. Meanwhile, he's playing hard to get between the Obama and Hillary Clinton camps, even declining to return calls from Obama's campaign.
Now, it is fair to ask, what is Sharpton really up to? What is his real objection to Obama? That Obama has white supporters? That Obama has become the first serious black presidential candidate in U.S. history? That he lacks the civil rights bona fides that Sharpton claims for himself?
Or is the real problem that Obama's biracial appeal has trumped Sharpton's race card?
For the past few decades, black votes have been promised and delivered by brokers like Sharpton. This isn't shocking in itself. Everybody does it. On the Republican side, certain individuals also promise to deliver certain votes. Evangelicals, for instance. It's the business of politics.
Sometimes, as in Sharpton's case, a vote broker will run for office himself. He knows he can't win, but he can raise enough money to run and to collect federal matching funds.
Such a candidate can live for a while in a style to which he would like to become accustomed. Limos, bodyguards, room service.
In 2004, when Sharpton ran for president, he ran up the highest average hotel bills of any candidate, with an average stay at the Four Seasons running at a whopping $3,598, according to Fundrace.org, a Web site that tracked campaign expenditures.
What happens when the money runs out and the campaign isn't doing so well? Ah. The constituency, so carefully cultivated, gets bartered. For a fair trade and a few perks: My votes are your votes.
Obama presents a particular problem for the Sharptons of the world because he doesn't need their help getting the black vote. Obama has mass appeal to both races. What happens to someone like Sharpton when his services are no longer needed?
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, perhaps. What we're witnessing now may be a variation on the psychiatric disorder -- a new twist in psycho-politics. Munchausen is usually associated with mothers who fabricate diseases or harm their children so that they can then tend to them and make them well.
In Sharpton's case, we might call it "Mighty Mouse Syndrome." His efforts to damage Obama suggest that Sharpton may be creating problems so that he can then solve them. Come to save the day, in other words.
Sharpton's Barack-bashing is more than politics as usual. It is also a historic watershed, the death throe of an old guard. Regardless of whether Obama wins, his candidacy has exposed Sharpton and other race peddlers for what they are -- and threatened their relevancy.
The trick for Sharpton now is how long to withhold his support. If he signs on with Obama too soon, his currency is less valuable. Next month's summit may still be too soon, but at least it gives him time to stall and rally his constituents. To build his product.
While Sharpton may believe that he is much desired by both front-runners, whisperers within some Democratic quarters wouldn't be sorry to see Sharpton attach himself to Clinton. They're banking on another syndrome -- the Ned Lamont Syndrome.
When Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut for the Democratic Senate nomination last year, who joined him on the stage? Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who also is being coy toward Obama -- leaning toward but not yet endorsing him.
Who lost in the general election? Ned Lamont.
Likewise, Clinton may not benefit from being frozen in the frame with Sharpton. Which is to say, Sharpton's magic has become an empty top hat.
The rabbit is on the run, and the cat is out of the bag.