Poor campaign with a rich message

By Crystal Higgins
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

With nine Democratic hopefuls in the 2004 presidential campaign, candidates may find it challenging to get voters to remember who they are. The Rev. Al Sharpton is neither the most well-covered nor well-known candidate, but his policies and voice are reminiscent of a voice in the presidential campaigns of the 1980s -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson's.

Equality in public education, health care and voting rights, issues adopted from Jackson's writing, are the centerpieces of Sharpton’s presidential campaign.

"The central part of Sharpton’s campaign is adding new amendments to the Constitution, while all the other candidates are fighting for programs and policies," said Frank Watkins, Sharpton's former national campaign manager.

The current system leaves health care, voting rights or the right to a public education of equal high quality up to individual states rather than including them the Constitution, Watkins said.

Some health care programs that other presidential candidates are fighting for may not provide care for all Americans. Sharpton argues that we must "first establish the premise that the American people are entitled to have a right to health care," Watkins said.

Jackson recognized the importance of these issues during his 1988 presidential bid, when he proposed an amendment for all U.S. citizens to enjoy the right to health care of equal quality.

"The similarity is that these are poor campaigns with a rich message," said Watkins.

The message is similar in both campaigns, but the means of spreading it differ. Jackson ran an extensive campaign in 1983 by organizing farmers and others in the “rainbow coalition,” a campaign designed to broaden his appeal, said Basil Talbott, a George H. Gallup professor at the University of Iowa. Jackson also visited Iowa frequently and had a local staff.

"When Jackson gained support in Iowa, it gave him credibility beyond the African-American community," Talbott said.

During his campaign, Jackson also traveled to Europe to establish credentials in foreign affairs to make himself a competitive candidate who appealed to a broad population. Sharpton has not done so.

Sharpton has not opened an Iowa campaign office, nor has he visited Iowa extensively.

Watkins did not say whether Sharpton plans to open an Iowa office in the near future. Sharpton’s campaign attributes the absence of an Iowa office to a lack of campaign funds - $12,000 compared with millions for "first-tier" candidates such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"Every campaign has their own strategy and emphasizes some states more than others as part of their overall strategy. And of course, money or the lack thereof has something to do with that, too," said Watkins.

The Sharpton campaign is not any different than other campaigns in picking and choosing strongly supportive states, he said.

"We are competing in every state to the degree that we can give an overall strategy and resources," said Watkins.

Sharpton has campaigned extensively in South Carolina, Alabama, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

Rather than win, his goal is more likely to do what Jackson did in 1988: use a losing campaign to position himself as one of the most influential Democrats in America. Jackson helped win back the Senate for the Democrats in 1986 and the presidency for Bill Clinton in 1992, Watkins said. Jackson also helped African-American politicians win office at other levels, such as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and former Virgnia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Sharpton and Jackson possess similar oratory skills, delivering speeches and debates that can generate enthusiasm from an audience of potential voters.

However, although both of these campaigns can electrify a crowd and have focused on constitutional amendments for everyone, Jackson's rainbow coalition generated support came from a more diverse electorate than Sharpton does, Talbott said.

"Jackson appealed to the electorate by registering and turning out voters," he said. "Sharpton may try to do this before the end of the election cycle."

E-mail Crystal Higgins at [email protected]

This story was published in the Sac (City, IA) Sun on November 25, 2003

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