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Jackson Raises the Curtain On a 'Working Class' Act

In prelude to Election 2000, the liberal preacher rallies crowds with talk of a 'class gap.'

Here among the rolling foothills of Appalachia, where poverty stubbornly gnaws like rust on an old car, Jesse Jackson has come to reframe the American political debate.

"During a period of tremendous growth and prosperity there is substantial evidence working-class Americans are being left behind," says the Rev. Mr. Jackson. "That must be the essence of the debate in '98 and 2000."

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In a two-day swing through Appalachia, Jackson invoked the legacies of Kennedy, Johnson, and King to put fellow Democrats on notice that he will not let the working poor, black or white, disappear from the political agenda as "the Dow soars past 9000."

While the two-time presidential contender says he's undecided about a third run in 2000, his staff has made it clear this trip is a trial balloon that has already left the ground: Jackson is determined to influence the debate, whether he runs or not.

That prospect has inspired enthusiasm among the poor here in Appalachia, dread in Al Gore's political camp, and skepticism among the Washington political elite.

"What I've heard is: 'Not again,' " says political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "At this point I just don't take it seriously, and I don't know anyone who would."

Mr. Sabato says that while Jackson is no longer a political "gadfly" - his role as the Clinton administration's roving Africa ambassador gives him official credentials - he's been out of electoral politics since 1988. During that time, Jackson's constituency - which Sabato claims is "the black community, period" - has become more and more integrated into the regular Democratic Party structure.

But other analysts believe the leader of the Rainbow Coalition also speaks to liberals, homosexuals, and working poor.

"Jesse Jackson is the most effective vote-getter in terms of attracting votes among African-Americans, Hispanics, and progressive whites in history," says Democratic pollster Ron Lester. "He's proven his ability to get hard-to-reach voters to the polls - in '88 they were called Jesse-crats."

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The still-undecided candidate himself is determined to broaden his appeal even further. "My fear is that there is a great danger of reducing the race dialogue to entertainment, while the issue of the 'stock wealthy' and the 'sweat poor' goes unaddressed," says Jackson.

That has strategists in the Gore camp nervous. They know that even if Jackson's appeal doesn't go far beyond the black community, the unrepentantly liberal preacher could still undermine the vice president's status as the Democrats' heir apparent. The reason: Jackson can hold the key to the South.

Because of the Republican resurgence over the past 20 years in what once was the land of Dixiecrats, only 35 percent of the Democratic primary voters in the South are white. That gives the African-American community enormous political clout; their presence in most Southern Democratic primaries accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the vote.

Super Tuesday calculus

In 1988, when Jackson went head to head with Mr. Gore in the 13 Southern Super Tuesday states, Jackson garnered 31.8 percent of the vote and Gore won only 30.2 percent. Compare that with 1992, when Bill Clinton won 62.6 percent of the vote in those same states.

"The difference between Clinton getting the nomination in '92 and Gore not getting it in 1988 was the presence of Jackson in the South," says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based liberal think tank.

Since his days as one of Martin Luther King's lieutenants during the civil rights movement, the fiery preacher has attracted crowds and criticism. He's been accused of opportunism - heavy on spotlight-grabbing and light on substance. His supporters counter that Jackson's freewheeling, risk-taking style is simply a threat to politicians who lack his charisma.

When Jackson entered the presidential race in 1984, late and with little money, some black leaders called it divisive and unnecessary. But then, and again in '88, Jackson proved he could mobilize - and register - a large portion of fed-up, alienated voters. Thus, the term Jesse-crat.

Jackson is still wildly popular in the black community. A recent Joint Center survey put his approval rating at 86 percent among black voters, compared with 67 percent for Gore.

Among the general population, Gore beats Jackson, 53 to 36 percent. But that doesn't change the political calculus.

If Jackson doesn't run, Gore is expected to win the South and the nomination. If Jackson does, he could take enough support away from Gore to give a third Democratic contender a serious go at the vice president - whether it's House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts or Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, or New Jersey's retired Sen. Bill Bradley.

"It will force Gore to debate the issues he doesn't really want to talk about: the widening class gap, welfare reform, jobs going overseas," says Mr. Bositis, "things the Clinton administration has done that represent the Republicanization of the Democratic Party."

That's fine with many of the people here in southeast Ohio. At a town meeting Sunday night on the widening class gap, Jackson's call for Appalachia to rise up as the moral authority and lead the nation in the class debate met with thunderous applause.

"The underlying problem is that we don't have jobs that pay a living wage," said Jack Fech, director of the Athens County Department of Human Services, nodding his head in agreement.

It's about class

As Jackson walked into a packed, mostly white church on the campus of the University of Ohio, he received a standing ovation. "The class gaps are legal and getting wider, for the wealthy there is no roof, for the poor there is no floor," insisted Jackson. "There must be some obligation on the part of great beneficiaries of America's largess to reinvest in America - Leave No American Behind! That must be our motto!"

But underlying the enthusiasm was also some skepticism. For generations, politicians have come to showcase Appalachia, call for reform, throw money at experimental programs, and then leave. Like paint quickly brushed over a rusting fender, the reforms themselves are all too often undermined by the enormity of the core problems of poverty, joblessness, and lack of educational opportunity that seem to cling to these rolling green hills.

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