WASHINGTON -- When Democratic candidate Al Sharpton waved an ax handle at the NAACP's presidential forum this week, he tapped into an emotion that brought the crowd to its feet.
Sharpton said some in the Democratic Party revive memories of former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, a segregationist who would chase blacks from his fried chicken restaurant with an ax handle. The theatrical comparison went to the heart of a complaint expressed by many at the forum -- the party takes blacks for granted.
Rousing the audience is what Sharpton does best, and the skill is shared by presidential rivals Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. The three can be counted on to deliver fiery rhetoric that can make their opponents' presentations as exciting as a Senate floor speech.
While those three candidates make liberal hearts beat fast, other candidates are trying to appeal to heads. Their rationale? They can beat President Bush.
"When I think about how to distinguish myself here, I want to sort of just be practical," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, this week. "You are going to have a string of candidates who are going to come in front of you, and they're all going to say, 'Well, I support this, or I support that.' The test you have to make is: Who can be president of the United States, and who will we trust? Who will really fight?"
Kerry spoke before Dean, Kucinich and Sharpton, but undoubtedly knew their unabashedly liberal positions could give them more appeal among gay activists. He addressed a fear among some Democrats that 2004 could be a repeat of 1972, when the party nominated anti-war liberal George McGovern, only to get trounced by a sitting Republican president, Richard Nixon, in the general election.
While the leading campaigns don't appear seriously threatened by Kucinich and Sharpton, Dean's ability to tap into liberals' frustrations has drawn a significant following in the race for the nomination.
Dean, a former Vermont governor, harshly rebukes Democrats who have not stood up to Bush's policies and went along with his plan for education changes, tax cuts and the resolution to wage war against Iraq. He says he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," which led Florida Sen. Bob Graham to respond that he's from "the electable wing of the Democratic Party."
"Clearly some candidates are better than others at revving up a crowd and throwing out red meat," said Graham adviser David Eichanbaum. "But Democrats today more than any time I can ever remember think it is more important to win this time than it is to agree with our nominee on everything."
Nedra Pickler covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.
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