Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2003 / 16 Kislev, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Beating Sharpton at his own game | Last Saturday night, Al Sharpton hosted "Saturday Night Live" and charmed the nation by singing "I Feel Good" and busting some very fine James Brown moves. But yesterday, Howard Dean went up to Harlem and did a political shuffle that left Sharpton looking leadfooted.

Dean's partner was Al Gore. They appeared together at a breakfast meeting at the National Black Theatre, where the former vice president called for Dean's nomination.

A lot of attention has been devoted to the obvious anti-Clinton symbolism of staging the summit on 125th St., where the former President has a rarely used but highly visible office.

Doubtless, both Dean and Gore were happy, each for his own reasons, to declare their independence from both Hillary and Bill.

Still, Bill Clinton only rents in Harlem. Sharpton is supposed to own it.

But when Dean raided his turf yesterday, Sharpton was off somewhere else, running.

Not, of course, for President. The Rev. Al knows perfectly well he's not White House material.

He's not going to be on the Democratic ticket, either. In Iowa and New Hampshire, he's not even a blip on the screen.

No, Sharpton has a different goal: To move the political headquarters of black America from Chicago to New York, with himself replacing the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the man in charge.

That's a huge thing, and there's a lot more involved than ego. Anybody can be a Democratic candidate, but no one can actually dominate the party without control over its biggest reliable constituency, black voters.

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Sharpton's strategy for replacing Jackson has been to emulate him. He's the first black Democratic presidential aspirant since Jackson ran in 1988. Jackson's candidacy undermined Michael Dukakis' popularity and credibility with black voters.

After the Rev. Al went after Dean for courting Jefferson Davis Democrats, Dean must have seen that the same could happen to him.

In fact, with Southern primaries coming up, the pummeling could get worse.

This could be fatal to Dean's presidential chances, even if he ultimately gets the nomination.

No Democrat can possibly beat President Bush in November without a massive black turnout, and Dean won't get one if he has spent a year as Sharpton's yuppie punching bag.

Dean could try to strike a deal with Sharpton, but that's risky. Sharpton is very unpopular with a lot of voters.

And, in the unlikely event of a Dean victory, Dean doesn't want to turn the White House into a time-share with Tawana Brawley's mentor.

And so Dean decided on a Harlem two-step. Bringing Gore uptown got all the attention, but that was actually step two. Step one, less publicized but more crucial, took place in Chicago on Sunday, when Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. formally endorsed Dean.

Without the Jacksons, father and son, Dean would not have dared invade Sharpton's turf. But embracing them changes the dance. Dean can afford to step all over Sharpton - and even be rewarded for it by the Confederate flag-wavers Dean covets - as long as he has someone else on his arm.

Gore had his own reasons for coming up to Harlem, and for the moment they are the talk of the town.

But ultimately, Gore's endorsement won't matter, because Gore no longer matters.

Dean brought him uptown to make an unspoken announcement of real significance: In his Democratic Party, the black political headquarters stays in Chicago.

As for the Rev. Al, he can have Harlem back now. Dean is finished with it.

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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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