Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2004 / 27 Teves, 5764

Zev Chafets

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That's Al, folks! | COLUMBIA, S.C. — Howard Dean is down in the polls but he's still at the top of Al Sharpton's Enemies List.

"There's no blacks in this man's Cabinet in Vermont, and he says he wants to teach me something about race relations," Sharpton told worshipers at the Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday morning.

"Says he's not a racist, he's just never lived in a diverse community. That's like saying, 'I'm honest, but I ain't never been around no money.'"

It got a big laugh. In church, in Columbia as much as in Harlem, the Rev. Al plays to a hometown audience.

Sharpton is here on a two-day campaign swing for the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3. While Dean and other white candidates battle in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sharpton's trying to flank them here and in other states with large black populations. He thinks he can go into the March Super Tuesday primaries with as many delegates as the current front-runners.

No, the Rev hasn't gone balmy. He knows he can't win the nomination. But he intends to play a major role in setting the party's agenda in the fall campaign and is offering himself to black voters as a pragmatic choice.

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"Any of the candidates you vote for can lose," he told congregants. "But I'm the only one running you can't lose with."

Sharpton's strategy is based on achieving a shock-and-awe majority among South Carolina's black voters. Call it the Jesse Jackson maneuver.

In 1988, Jackson, Sharpton's mentor and rival, won South Carolina and 10 other state primaries, making him a major powerbroker in the party.

"Sharpton isn't Jesse Jackson," cautions Prof. Jack Bass of the College of Charleston. "Sharpton is liked in the state. But Jackson grew up here. And Jackson isn't supporting Sharpton."

It's not just Jackson. Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has appeared here with Dean. Rep. James Clyburn, the most powerful black pol in the state, is for Dick Gephardt. And Andrew Young of neighboring Georgia is working for Wesley Clark.

Sharpton scoffs at such endorsements: "Only people with bad credit need co-signers."

Sharpton speaks for himself, and Sunday his message was more sermon than stump speech. He touched only perfunctorily on issues such as the budget and health care, said nothing at all about foreign affairs or security and concentrated on what the Republicans call "family values."

It was a reminder that, despite Sharpton's radical image, he is profoundly conservative on social issues. He preaches a gospel of self-help and personal responsibility that is right out of the Booker T. Washington handbook. "If you're down," he admonished, "don't get comfortable."

Sharpton also assailed what he considers decadence in the black community. He was especially tough on hip-hop vulgarity.

"We've gone from Aretha Franklin singing about respect to calling our women 'hos,'" he said. "That's not black culture."

For the most part, the middle-class audience at Reid Chapel liked the message. They are church people, after all. And so is Sharpton, who ended his remarks with a fervent testimony to the power of Jesus. "His eye is on the sparrow," Sharpton riffed, sounding more like the Rev. C.L. Franklin than Aretha, "and I know He's watching me."

I couldn't help thinking that it's a good thing the ACLU isn't watching along with the Lord. In Sharpton's America, like George W. Bush's, the separation of church and state gets fuzzy.

The difference is, Bush isn't running in the Democratic primaries as a progressive.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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