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There is an unfortunate tendency among Democrats to view Al Sharpton's candidacy as a problematic spoiler, siphoning votes away from candidates who have a real chance of winning the nomination and the presidency (and let's face it, Sharpton can do neither). I think it would be much more productive to view Sharpton as a challenge for the other candidates, rather than an annoying obstacle. Sharpton holds two things the Democratic party needs in order to win -- charisma and blacks.

Sharpton demonstrated his charisma at a recent NARAL forum, blowing front-runners John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman out of the water in his ability to energize a crowd (the content of the speeches wasn't an issue, as the forum was a chance for the candidates to demonstrate that they can toe the pro-choice line). There is a tendency to look at Sharpton's charisma as some sort of dirty trick. Instead, the other candidates should look at Sharpton's public speaking abilities as a standard that they'll have to meet to win the hearts of voters. Howard Dean was successful in this respect at the NARAL forum, and Edwards' trial-and-error strategy may see him using a more Sharptonesque style in his next appearance.

Sharpton's strongest support comes from black voters. The Democrats tend to assume minorities will vote for them, and use that as a base from which to reach out to moderate whites. There will be a temptation to depend on a few reminders of the Trent Lott affair to keep blacks in the Democratic column. Nevertheless, there are complaints from some corners that the Democrats take the black vote for granted, which may ammount to a charge of hypocrisy after the opportunistic way Democrats criticized Republicans' stance on racial issues this winter. The support of blacks is especially critical to the race's New Englanders -- kerry, Liberman, and Dean -- since conventional wisdom says only southern Democrats can win over southern states (with their growing share of the Electoral College), so non-southerners will be in even greater need of the south's traditionally liberal black voters. Democrats should not be satisfied with dismissing Sharpton as an anti-Semitic race baiter. While he may be those things, it is important to take a positive tack in winning the support of blacks. Democratic candidates should view Sharpton's candidacy as a challenge to articulate a clear vision on race, as well as issues like inner-city poverty that disproportionately affect non-whites. Sharpton says he's in teh race to raise issues important to minorities, so let's accept that challenge rather than conceding the issue to him. A vigorous debate over race can energize the minority base, leading to an electoral payoff for whichever Democrat wins the nomination and embarassing the Republicans.


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