Inside the numbers

Posted: Mar 25, 2003 12:00 AM

While American troops were engaged in only their third day of combat in Iraq, an announced candidate for the Democratic nomination for president was joining a disaffected and ultimately riotous crowd of war protesters in New York City.

But the important question for Rev. Al Sharpton isn't what his true intentions were, but why he even bothered. In our recent survey of 1,000 adults, a vast majority of those with an opinion said they don't consider the black activist to be a legitimate candidate for president. Significantly, almost as many African Americans (43 percent) dismissed Sharpton's candidacy as whites did (44.7 percent). The poll has a margin of error of 3 percent.

Is it unfair even to ask if a candidate should be taken seriously or not? Shouldn't voters make that choice when the time comes? Not always. In fact, the question has already been posed. In an NBC television interview earlier this year, host Tim Russert followed a listing of "Big Al" follies with this blunt question to Sharpton: "If a white candidate had that background, do you believe people would take him seriously as a candidate for president?"

"I think you have white candidates with worse backgrounds," Sharpton replied.

Maybe, Reverend. But that doesn't change the fact that your shrill words and circus barker antics demean the entire political process. And as of this past weekend, they also undermine the work of our troops in Iraq. Doubtless Saddam Hussein or his proxies used your anti-war sentiments to encourage Iraqi troops to keep up the fight and kill more Americans, instead of surrendering and saving lives on both sides.

Some political pundits believe Sharpton serves a legitimate purpose in the 2004 Democratic primary. They say that while he will probably fare poorly in early Midwestern and Northern Democratic primary elections, he may later enrich and enliven the election sweepstakes by attracting significant support among African Americans in the South.

What a joke! Yes, seasoned political observers can identify and respect a politically astute gadfly candidate like Rev. Jesse Jackson, as controversial as he can be. Jackson is sometimes able to wield enough clout to alter political strategies within the Democratic Party. But Sharpton so far has been completely unable to accomplish anything that constructive, and here's hoping he never does. Apparently, minority and dissatisfied liberal voters want a reasoned voice for their interests, not just a loud one.

Maybe these Americans know that Sharpton has refused to say Saddam Hussein is worse than George Bush. Or that Sharpton has hailed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as a great leader. Maybe they recall the trumped-up rape trial that Sharpton participated in and milked publicity from -- before the whole thing turned out to be a complete fabrication.

The truth is that the brightest minds in the Democratic Party hope this bleating press hound will just go away. They recognize that any success for Al Sharpton in next year's primary season might force party leaders to allow him to speak at next year's national party convention. If that happens, what little chance the Democrats might have to defeat President Bush will melt away as fast as it takes the convention's TV viewers to reach for their remotes and change the channel.

Perhaps more disturbing is the realization that Sharpton's rhetorical sword may simply be the blunt-edged version of the blades being wielded by like-minded but more circumspect leadership in the Democratic Party. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle recently traipsed onto the shaky ground of attacking the president in time of war. His remarks drew censure from all corners of the nation, and Daschle decided to cool the opposition opportunism at least until the bullets stop flying.

But not Big Al. Instead of holding his piece until there is lasting peace, he proved almost as contemptuous of his country's government as our battlefield enemies are. An act of courage by Sharpton? More like an act of cynical, tasteless showmanship. Experience has shown that where two or more cameras are gathered, there too shall be Al.

Here's an idea: Now that Americans have dismissed Al Sharpton as a serious political voice, much less a presidential candidate, let us in the media stop rebuilding his speaking soapbox by means of free publicity for his bogus candidacy.

Al Sharpton? Forget him. In fact, most already have.