Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2004 / 21 Teves, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Sharpton pays back Dean a snub by throwing the race harpoon | A month ago, when Howard Dean came up to Harlem to get himself endorsed by Al Gore, Al Sharpton, the political proprietor of 125th St., was not invited to the ceremony.

It was clear even then that Dean would pay for disrespecting the Rev. On Sunday night in a nationally televised debate in Iowa, he got the bill.

Early in the debate, Dean told the audience that the key to race relations is for whites to understand the sensitivities of blacks. Implicit is that Dean himself has a highly evolved ability to do so.

In the past, Sharpton has listened politely to this notion. This time, he called Dean on it. How many blacks and Hispanics, he asked, did you appoint to your cabinet in Vermont? The answer, of course, is none.

Dean was forced to admit this sin against diversity, and he did it with a moose-in-the-headlights expression. Not since 1988, when Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen informed his debate rival, Dan Quayle, that "you're no Jack Kennedy" has a candidate been so visibly confounded.

And worse was to come. When, later in the evening, Dean attempted to recover by citing the many endorsements he has received from black officials, Sharpton snapped, "The only people who need co-signers are the ones with bad credit."

It was Dean's worst nightmare come true. Not only did he lose all credibility as the Great Educator, he got singled out as a guy with a race problem. And his adversaries have the video clips to prove it.

The fallout won't be immediate. Iowa and New Hampshire are two of just four states in the union that have never elected a black or a woman to Congress (Dean's Vermont is another). But after New Hampshire, the Democrats leave Ozzie-and-Harriet-Land for America - states like South Carolina, Virginia, Michigan and Illinois, where, in the hands of dedicated Dean-stoppers, Sharpton's sound bites can turn the former Vermont governor into a reverse Willie Horton.

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New York's primary will be held March 2. The most recent Marist Poll shows Dean leading overall with 26%, but that number is highly tentative. More than a quarter of voters are still undecided, among them a great many black and Hispanic Democrats (experts put the minority primary vote at about one-third). Word of the Dean-Sharpton exchange in Iowa will not go unmentioned.

If Dean winds up losing the Democratic nomination, the Iowa debate will enter political lore, giving Sharpton the most important gift an ethnic boss can have - the reputation as a spoiler. For the Rev., the Democratic convention in Boston will be Christmas in July.

Even if Dean does get the nomination, it may be worthless. The Rev. Al has testified that the good doctor is just another white vote hustler with a bad suit and a mouthful of Martin Luther King Jr. That, coupled with Dean's own soulless persona, ought to be enough to deprive him of the massive black turnout necessary to elect a Democrat President.

Unless ... What if Dean's famous appeal to white men with Confederate flags wasn't a gaffe? What if he is actually embarking on a Southern strategy of his own, pulling a Bizzaro Nixon? Could he have set the Rev. up, suckered him into an attack aimed at making Dean the candidate of anti-Sharpton America? Is the doctor that slick? That devious? That smart?

Nah. Just take another look at his face after Sharpton bitch-slapped him on TV. He's got the expression of a guy who doesn't know what hit him. Maybe he still doesn't. But in the months to come, he's going to find out.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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