WASHINGTON – Whether they find success or not, black presidential hopefuls Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun are expected to pose major problems for the so-called "top tier" Democratic candidates who may be forced left rather than moving to the politically expedient center.
The two African-American candidates have entered the nine-person race for the Democratic nomination, posing a political and racial alternative to more recognized candidates like Sens. Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards and Bob Graham as well as Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt.
"Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton are a clear and present danger to Lieberman, Kerry, Gephardt and Graham in Florida if they decide to run," Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress for Racial Equality in New York, told Fox News.
Innis predicts the top Democratic candidates will be forced to submit to a "pander fest," in which they fall over themselves to court the liberal wing of the party, where many of the minority voters sit. This comes at a time when President Bush's popularity is forcing Democrats to move to the political middle.
Innis said if the top-tier candidates really want to demonstrate that they are in touch with minority voters, they won't be shackled by the racial politics he expects Sharpton and Moseley-Braun to play.
"If they had courage, they would distance themselves," said Innis, citing the correct intuition of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 to scold rap artist Sista Soulja and her police-bashing rhetoric on the eve of his election.
"But I don’t think they have the courage, they will take the knee-jerk reaction and patronize Carol and Sharpton," he said.
Sharpton and Moseley-Braun refused repeated attempts to be interviewed for this story.
While the vast majority of blacks vote Democratic -- 91 percent cast ballots for Al Gore in the 2000 election -- they represent approximately 10 percent of total voters in recent presidential elections.
Early polls show that Sharpton and Moseley-Braun have little chance of winning in the primaries, but analysts say they could make trouble in a number of ways aside from setting the agenda and polarizing black and white, liberal and moderate Democrats.
Dick Morris, political analyst and former advisor to President Clinton, said Sharpton, who has greater national name recognition than Moseley-Braun, may run as an independent and act as a spoiler for whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2004.
"I think he may launch an independent candidacy to make the Democrats pay for ignoring blacks," said Morris, pointing to growing disenchantment among blacks who believe their issues are given lip service at election time, but ignored throughout the rest of the year.
"That will make a huge difference in the election. It will make [Ralph] Nader seem minor," Morris added, referring to Nader’s Green Party bid in 2000, which took 3 percent of the votes nationally, and was blamed by some for helping Al Gore lose the Florida race to George W. Bush.
The strident anti-war stances by both black candidates may also prove attractive to black Democrats. In a March 28 Gallup poll of African-Americans, 29 percent said they support the war in Iraq; other polls indicate 78 percent of white Americans support the war.
Some Democrats seem prepared to pre-empt any third-party spoilers this time around. Sharpton has already taken hits from prominent party members who have called the New York activist’s brand of racial politics divisive.
"His own record is just shocking," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is supporting Kerry’s bid for the nomination. "Al Sharpton bragged about not paying taxes. If this came out about any other candidate for president, that would be the end of the candidacy."
But Donna Brazile, Gore's former campaign manager, said she isn't too worried about the two candidates' effect on the top-tier Democrats, saying it isn't a given that they will attract black voters.
"Al Sharpton is going to have to go out and fight for the black vote," said Brazile, who is black. She rejected the notion that the Democratic Party has ignored African-American issues, and said, if anything, she sees the two candidates "solidifying the base for the Democratic Party."
Nonetheless, Washington observers say that Moseley-Braun was encouraged to run by Democratic leaders who wanted to diminish Sharpton’s impact on the black vote in the primaries. Her operatives, however, are angry at the suggestion.
"Why aren’t reporters asking John Kerry if he entered the race to take away votes from Joe Lieberman?" asked Kevin Lampe, who is working for Moseley-Braun's campaign. "That part of the story is just speculation, and at its core, is racist."
Innis said he hopes their candidacies will help jump-start future campaigns for a growing number of moderate black politicians, like Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., who ran unsuccessfully for House majority leader late last year.
"I think the political dynamics for blacks is changing dramatically," Innis said, adding that the emergence of two black candidates in the primaries bodes well for the future.
"It will provide an interesting backdrop for the Democratic primary race."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.