Happy Warrior Al

As an activist, Al Sharpton has never had trouble competing for media attention.

As a Presidential candidate, he’s been all but ignored.

He doesn’t think it matters.

“Three months ago, it was John Edwards on the cover of every magazine, and now the flavor of the month is Howard Dean,” Mr. Sharpton said. “All they’re doing is creating myths that will blow up in their faces.”

It was in the early afternoon of Aug. 4, and Mr. Sharpton was walking across the plaza outside police headquarters in downtown Manhattan. He’d just met with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about the recent police shooting of an African man, then had appeared at a press conference with the victim’s grieving relatives. Operating in his longtime role of civil-rights activist, Mr. Sharpton was mobbed by attention, addressing a heaving knot of two dozen television and print reporters.

But now, after the event, he was playing his other role-Presidential candidate-and all the cameras had disappeared. A lone reporter was on hand to listen to him as he walked along, talking about the object of his ire that day: the contrast between the national media’s near-total lack of interest in his candidacy and its attentive coverage of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose Internet-driven, populist campaign has propelled him to the front of the primary pack.

“The media is just showing the same bias they showed when Jesse Jackson ran for President,” Mr. Sharpton said as he headed across the plaza towards a waiting car. “If you remember, Gary Hart became the darling of ’84, and then Al Gore became the darling of ’88, and neither one of them was anywhere in the end.”

Mr. Sharpton seemed particularly bothered that Mr. Dean had won the mantle of populist from the media despite what he described as the Vermont governor’s scant appeal among minority voters. His explanation:

“Because the national media is almost completely white,” he said, now grinning. “I mean, what are we talking about? I think the national media not only show their bias, but their own exclusionary policies.”

And later that afternoon, Mr. Sharpton continued on in the same theme: “How can they call [Mr. Dean] a candidate of the left with an Internet-based movement when the poor and dispossessed don’t have any access to the Internet? How can you have a movement of the dispossessed that’s led by the possessed?”

Mr. Sharpton’s Presidential campaign clearly isn’t being taken as seriously as he thinks it should be. In fact, it’s been widely dismissed, given that he is the only one of the nine primary candidates never to have held an elected office, raises almost no money and has a near-nonexistent national campaign organization. His controversial past, and his prominent involvement in some of the most contentious racial episodes in New York history-as well as his frequent accusations of white establishment bias-make him a repellent figure for moderate and conservative voters.

But it may be time to start paying attention to Al Sharpton. He can’t bewritten off, because it’s nearly impossible to assess the Sharpton candidacy by traditional measurements.

For one thing, the media has by and large failed to capture the wild enthusiasm Mr. Sharpton has generated among African-American voters-not just in New York, but at live campaign events across the country. Moreover, whatever support Mr. Sharpton wins will come largely from minority voters, whose numbers often seem to be underestimated by pollsters and other political fortune tellers. (Jesse Jackson’s support during his Presidential runs was completely underestimated by the mainstream political world-not once, but twice.)

Mr. Sharpton also deserves notice for another reason: He is perhaps the only candidate who can lose the primary and still come out a winner. In interviews, Mr. Sharpton barely disguises the fact that his goals in entering the Presidential contest are as much about increasing his ability to affect the Democratic Party platform as they are about attaining office. (The phrase “If I don’t win … ” is often tacked on as an afterthought to his plans for the convention and afterwards.)

Rather than win, his goal is more likely to do what Jesse Jackson did in 1988: to use a losing campaign to position himself as one of the most influential Democrats in America. In that election Mr. Jackson, also a reverend and a civil-rights leader, compiled more delegates than almost any losing candidate in the history of Democratic primaries, winning several states outright and taking the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, down to the wire. For Mr. Jackson, the benefits were both immediate and enormous: He became the undisputed national leader of the civil-rights movement and one of the most powerful brokers within the Democratic Party establishment. It was partly in hopes of gaining Mr. Jackson’s approval and help in future elections, for example, that the Democratic National Committee chose its first African-American chair, Ron Brown.

Can Al Sharpton do in 2004 what Jesse Jackson did in 1988? At first glance, it seems impossible. As many Sharpton critics will readily point out, Mr. Sharpton-former F.B.I. informant, mouthpiece for Tawana Brawley, denouncer of “white interlopers” in Harlem-has a far more controversial background than Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Sharpton disagrees.

“Are you kidding?” he said, launching into what is by now an autopilot response. “Jackson was identically the same. This is an attempt to remake history. Jackson had to deal with ‘Hymietown’ during the ’84 race, and in ’88 he had to deal with [Ed Koch] saying that a Jew would be crazy to vote for him. What do they mean, he wasn’t as controversial as I am? Do you have a Mayor saying that anyone would be crazy to vote for me?”

How Big Is Al?

Others say that Mr. Sharpton simply lacks the stature enjoyed in 1988 by Mr. Jackson, who had already run for President four years earlier and had spent years reaching out to liberal white voters.

“Before Jesse Jackson ran for President, he was a nationally known personality who had traveled the country extensively for maybe 25 years, going places where none else went,” said Jerry Austin, the Ohio-based political consultant who ran Mr. Jackson’s campaign. “Al Sharpton does not have that kind of resume. He’s more limited to New York and black-and-white issues, even if he goes and gets arrested in Puerto Rico and talks about standing up for other people’s rights.”

Frank Watkins, the Sharpton campaign manager who played a key role in the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, refused to be drawn into a discussion about Mr. Sharpton’s prospects.

“My position is, I don’t pay any attention to the polls,” he said. “My advice to Reverend Sharpton is that he should simply focus on his message and do the best he can do and not engage in the political analysis.”

But Mr. Sharpton has several strengths that have gone unnoticed amid the intense coverage of the better-established candidates. “Ever since he started in politics, he’s been underestimated,” said Democratic consultant Josh Isay. “While the newspaper coverage is all about Howard Dean and John Kerry, when it comes to the debates and everyone is onstage together, that’s when Sharpton shines. And he’ll have a constituency that will come out and work for him and vote for him, so he doesn’t need the money or institutional support that others do.”

There’s another aspect to all this that political analysts may have missed: the Sharpton endgame. Even if he doesn’t win, he will almost certainly emerge with a loyal following of black voters, allowing him to wield influence over the eventual winner of the Democratic primary-who will need the support of those same voters in the general election.

“The question is, which candidate’s policies is the Democratic nominee going to have to take seriously at the end of the race?” Mr. Isay continued. “The answer is Al Sharpton, because he’s going to leave with a very strong and dedicated constituency that the nominee will have to win in order to be the next President.”

Targeting Terry

It’s clear that Mr. Sharpton is already planning ways to use the newfound influence he expects to have amassed by the time the Democratic National Convention comes to Boston next summer. Mr. Sharpton hinted, for example, that he would use his control of delegates to attempt an overthrow of D.N.C. chairman Terry McAuliffe, someone he’s clashed with in the past.

“The chairmanship of the party is something I’d like to discuss in Boston, and I think I’ll have the delegates to do that,” he said.

If Mr. Sharpton is to be a power broker at the convention, he will have to come in with a stronger-than-expected showing in the primary. And Mr. Sharpton seems confident that he has a plan to do just that.

“Look at the calendar,” he said. “We go from Iowa and New Hampshire, where Jackson was in the low single digits, to South Carolina, where I’m already tied for No. 2 in the polls. Then, on the same day, Missouri, where we’re strong; then Delaware, where we’re strong-the small primary states; then we got Washington, D.C., where we’re strong; then you come into Super Tuesday from California to New York to Georgia. See, I think what the media doesn’t realize is that even if somebody gets a big score in Iowa and New Hampshire, the calendar then brings them to states that are the complete opposite in demographics. It’s like someone eating the appetizer and acting like that’s the entree.”

For his scenario to play out, Mr. Sharpton says he’ll need enough of his opponents to remain viable to split the non-minority vote. That, he concludes, would leave the door open to back-door victories in certain states.

“You look at 20 percent in South Carolina and you win,” he said. “I pray every night for every one of the other contenders not to catch a cold and to get their sleep at night.”