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The Rev. Al Sharpton's latest crusade

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"You've got the kind of decadent self aggrandizement - me, me, me," he says of the gangsta culture. "I don't think you can go to these campuses and deal with social issues without confronting their being told, 'Just be a thug, just be a hood, just be a gangster.' So it may be cultural and political, but it's one and the same."

Political fault lines

Always a lightning rod in racial politics, Sharpton in this race has been at once dismissed as a completely improbable candidate and applauded as refreshing relief - in both white and minority communities. His quick wit and Revivalist delivery have won him plaudits in debates. ("Don't get confused, they're the Christian Right, but we're the right Christians.")

His attack on rival Howard Dean for his statement that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" won Sharpton gratitude among blacks for whom the flag is a symbol of repression, and also among some white leaders stunned at Dean's lack of sensitivity.

But the state of Sharpton's campaign - small, disorganized, and lacking a war chest - has caused even some followers to question whether he's running for real or for his own ego gratification. Sources say his first campaign manager, Frank Watkins, who is widely respected in political circles, left because he felt Sharpton wasn't committed to running the kind of campaign (read: raising money) that was necessary to make an impact like Jesse Jackson, Sr. did in the 1980s. A week after Mr. Watkins left, Jesse Jackson Jr., for whom Watkins used to work, endorsed Dean. ("I won't discuss Congressman Jackson!" Sharpton says - even before the question is half asked.)

And then there's the Sharpton baggage. He's the only candidate who's been indicted for tax evasion and fraud, then acquitted; who's been taped by the FBI in an alleged drug deal; and who's been stabbed for leading a protest in a predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some dismiss him even before he opens his mouth.

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