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Have you ever seen a race where the lead runner, called the “rabbit,” started off running and shocked people when it kept on running and won the race? Well, some are afraid that the current race for president is a little like that right now. Many people think that U.S. Sen. John (D-Mass.) Kerry is really the candidate who will emerge victorious, but that Dr. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, has started off like a house afire and will eventually burn out; then Kerry will come on and eventually win.

That scenario may well be true, but you couldn't tell it from Kerry's formal announcement for president at Patriot's Point, S.C., recently. To begin with, many pundits scratched their heads at why Kerry would announce in South Carolina rather than in his home state and city of Boston. But I can understand the strategy of trying to get a “twofer” by establishing that he was not just a Northeast regional candidate and that he could compete in the South with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and, not incidentally, Al Sharpton.

Sharpton is expected to do well in the South and right now, Edwards is reported not to be doing so well in the polls there because the Black vote has not warmed up to him. Kerry may be concerned that he could suffer the same fate – that is, to win or place second in the Northeast primaries and then come South and fall flat on his face. So, he is trying to make nice in South Carolina, hoping that he can build a beachhead to other areas in the South.

All of this says that the Black vote, especially in South Carolina, is key. It constituted 25 percent of the entire electorate in 2002 and in a Democratic primary, probably constitutes up to 50 percent of the vote. So why would you suppose that Kerry's speech would include just one line about civil rights and his prepared text didn't even mention African-Americans. He extemporaneously offered that discrimination should be ended with respect to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. The prepared text only mentioned gays and lesbians. Maybe, it's good that Kerry went South, so that his staff can understand the necessity for him to appeal more effectively to the Black vote. This outing just didn't get it.

But I'm still puzzled. One of the strong themes of Kerry's announcement party was his connection to the military, establishing his strength on this issue by invoking his credibility as a genuine war hero in Vietnam. One of the clearest signals of both his military theme and his wish to link to the South was to find former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland sitting on the stage with him. Cleland was also a highly decorated war hero and a former colleague of Kerry's in the Senate.

But Kerry's position on the war is weak. It goes something like this:

I believe in the war (so I am protected on the conservative flank), but by the way, I oppose how Bush is conducting the post-war arrangements (so I am protected on the liberal flank). Vagueness on the war has become the sore point with many activists Democrats. Sure, it is a fact that Democrats such as Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham, Dick Gephardt and Kerry all sided with Bush on the war, but now want to have it both ways. Dean, on the other hand, is getting a big push because of his clear opposition to the war and the post-war occupation of Iraq by the United States.

Ultimately Kerry's fence straddling seriously undercuts his credibility on the issue of defense and security with core Democrats. But then, the gang of four, led by Kerry, are betting that Dean, the rabbit, burns himself out on issues such as his opposition to the war and then they (who were handicapped to win all along) will come on in the finish to win the race.

Meanwhile, Dean who, like Sharpton, also has taken the strongest positions on race and racism, just keeps on out-running the pack, presenting the clearest, strongest issues. You'd think the “fab four” would get it. They do, but then they are just biding their time.

How Blacks react to this will be important, since the “fab four” have been the weakest on questions of race overall. Will we take it and fall in line, hoping to score with the group that is supposed to contain the eventual winner, or will we have the courage to push those who have had the correct positions all the way? I don't know. These days I find that courage is in pitifully short supply.

This article was prepared for, before Wesley Clark entered the presidential race.

Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute in the Academy of Leadership and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland- College Park. His latest book is 'White Nationalism, Black Interests' (Wayne State University Press).



October 2, 2003
Issue 58

is published every Thursday.

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