By Campaign Embed
updated 1/20/2004 12:32:44 PM ET 2004-01-20T17:32:44

The Rev. Al Sharpton is focused on one state right now, South Carolina, and his strategy is simple -- get the African-American vote.

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In South Carolina, African-Americans make up 30 percent of the population and could represent as many as half the state’s Democratic voters during the state’s primary on Feb. 3. Sharpton hopes to grab a majority of those votes and, if successful, he could finish either at or near the top of the pack depending on voter turnout.

Two things happened last week that make this goal possible -- Carol Moseley Braun dropped out of the race and the Rev. Jesse Jackson decided against endorsing any candidate before the state primary.

Braun’s withdrawal makes Sharpton the only African-American candidate on the ballot.  That helps with certain black voters -- South Carolina Democratic operative Kevin Gray, who worked on both Sharpton and Braun’s campaigns, said some black voters stick solely to race. “People will vote race in this state like they always do,” he said.

Braun proved during Washington D.C.’s primary last week that she could pull in black voters. Her campaign won 12 percent of the vote, most of which came from African-American communities. Sharpton lost that race to Howard Dean by a margin of  8 percentage points.

“Without Moseley Braun on the ballot, if the D.C. primary were to be held today, the African American vote would not be split and Rev. Sharpton would win,” said Sharpton Campaign Manager Charles Halloran.

Meantime, Jackson’s decision not to endorse anyone before the primary also benefits Sharpton. Jackson, a favorite son of South Carolina, won what was then the South Carolina Democratic Caucus in 1984 and 1988. Sharpton and Jackson share a long relationship which Jackson calls “very good,” but those close to Jackson said he was not endorsing Sharpton. The Sharpton campaign expressed the same feelings. “It’s not something we are expecting,” said Halloran.

So now Sharpton does not have to worry about Jackson coming to South Carolina and swaying black voters to another candidate. So why did Reverend Jackson change his mind?

Two weeks ago, Jackson met with the editorial board of the South Carolina newspaper The Post and Courier. The paper reported that during the meeting Jackson said “he will probably make a presidential endorsement before Feb. 3.”  But when I spoke with Jackson he said “mad Dean disease” caused him to change his mind.  He says too much mudslinging among the candidates made him reevaluate his endorsement plans.

“I’m concerned about the bloodletting that’s taking place. I would urge all the candidates to run on their own dream and not be trapped by this mad dean disease,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., has endorsed Howard Dean and Jackson, himself, has defended Dean in recent weeks.  But when asked about rumors that he was going to endorse Howard Dean later on he said: “No that’s not true, I choose to steer all our candidates toward a path that will lead us to victory.  If I wanted to run I would’ve run. I chose not to run putting a lot of focus right now on get out the vote on why people should vote.”

That said, throughout the interview Jackson mentioned Dean more than any other candidate.   “Dean has set the pace for this season,” said Jackson.

Jackson was also critical of Sharpton’s campaign. “To be effective you must have message, money and infrastructure.”

Jackson seems focused on a get out the vote effort.  He is even holding a rally in Columbia the day before the South Carolina primary.  He wants to make sure voters are aware of both the primary and the issues. “Many people have surrendered their vote, and great races are won and lost by the margin of hope,” he said.  “In these big elections votes matter and so we must inspire among working people to vote their hopes their interest and not vote their fears.”

Jackson’s rally will happen the same day Sharpton will embark on a 24-hour bus tour through the state of South Carolina.

Tough road
Party officials don’t believe that getting the black vote will be that easy for Sharpton.  

Executive Director of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, Nu Wexler, believes Braun and Jackson’s decisions are significant but will not change the “dynamics of the primary.”

“African Americans in South Carolina do not vote in a block.  They vote based on the issues,” said Wexler. 

Wexler did point out that Sharpton’s strategy in the state could be effective if not for the campaign for the party. “A lot of the other candidates are going to the same churches in Columbia and around the state. The members of those congregations have seen three of four candidates before. Sharpton is going out to small rural churches that aren’t getting visited and bringing new people to the party along the way by registering new voters.” 

Nonetheless, Sharpton’s numerous trips to the state, more than any other candidate, have helped him get the name recognition he needs. Most polls have him either in or tied for second place among all candidates running. 

At a NAACP rally on Martin Luther King Day in Columbia, nearly every African American I spoke to said they were voting for Sharpton. Most mentioned that “he brings up the issues,” and that he is a gifted speaker. Others cited his civil rights work referring to him as a “dynamic leader,” and a “fighter.” 

Sharpton, being the only African-American now on the ballot, and not worried that Rev. Jackson could possibly big foot him, stands a good chance of gaining the black vote. His biggest problem throughout the campaign has been organization, but his campaign made a notable effort leading up to the D.C. primary.  If the campaign can double that energy and truly organize and mobilize, Sharpton could grab headlines come early February.


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