By NEDRA PICKLER
WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton said he will travel across the country this summer with musicians and religious leaders in an effort to register 1.3 million new voters by next January.
Determined to play a major and credible role in national politics, Sharpton said he will try to persuade the hip-hop generation, the elderly and poor that participating in elections can improve their lot in life. His rivals, Sharpton argues, are focused on winning over existing voters.
"If I can't do it, name me who can do it?" he said. "It's not like they have an alternative person on the scene that connects with voters, that has the name recognition in the African American and Latino community and that can do this."
Sharpton will concentrate on voter registration tours in the South and Northeast this summer, then begin his presidential campaign in earnest after Labor Day. He realizes his goal is ambitious, but he is working with hip-hop record mogul Russell Simmons and Kedar Massenburg, president of Motown Records, to get popular artists involved.
"Just that kind of energy could stimulate a turnout and increased registration like we've never seen before because if you take a Jay-Z or a Run-DMC into Harlem, that's one thing," he said. "You take them to Greenville, South Carolina, that's the biggest thing that happened there in six months."
Sharpton tested his appeal the morning after last Saturday's Democratic presidential debate at a South Carolina Baptist church where he reminded the parishioners of the 1960s civil rights struggles.
"And here we are 40 years later, nobody's shooting you, nobody's bombing you, no dogs bite you - you're too lazy and ungrateful to get up and use your right somebody died to give you!" he shouted to parishioners who jumped to their feet in acclamation.
It's hard to imagine one of Sharpton's white rivals delivering such a message at a poor black church, but Sharpton says he is in a unique position to admonish minorities because of his experience as a civil rights activist.
Some Democrats worry that having the controversial Sharpton seeking the nomination could damage the party, but even his biggest critics don't deny that he has a gift for connecting with Democratic audiences. His jokes and anti-Bush one-liners have made him a surefire crowd pleaser.
How can President Bush oppose affirmative action, Sharpton asks, when "he's the biggest recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election to put him in the White House."
He lightened the mood of the contentious Democratic debate with his criticism of Bush's tax breaks. "It's like Jim Jones giving Kool-Aid - it tastes good, but it will kill you," a reference to the some 900 Jones followers who died in Guyana in 1978 after obeying his orders to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who coordinated media coverage for the debate, said Democrats have come across as relatively humorless in the campaign.
Sharpton "is able to make deadly serious points about the differences separating Democrats and Republicans which make you laugh initially and then make you think later on," Backus said. "The other candidates in the race should watch, listen and learn from him or at least steal his best lines."
David Bositis, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the question is whether Sharpton's charisma on the stump will translate into more black voters.
"First of all, it's possible that most of the people he talks to are already registered," he said. "If they aren't, are they going to go out and register after hearing him? And if they are, are they going to get their friends and neighbors to sign up?"
Sharpton often says his role model is Jesse Jackson, whom he credits with registering so many voters in his 1984 presidential campaign that Democrats were able to regain the Senate in 1986.
When asked about how he felt about Sharpton emulating his campaign, Jackson said, "I would like to think that my candidacy set a pace and a standard for all of the candidates."
Sharpton said if, like Jackson, he is unsuccessful in winning the presidential nomination, he hopes he will leave a legacy of new Democratic voters.
"That's the least I can do," he said.
On the Web: http://www.sharptonexplore2004.com
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