Three Candidates Court Liberal Activists

Three Democratic presidential candidates embraced the liberal wing of their party Friday, assailing rivals and party leaders for kowtowing to President Bush in a failed strategy to court moderate voters.

"The sellout of progressive politics has been a total disgrace for the Democratic Party. Not only is it morally wrong and politically cheap, but it doesn't even work," Al Sharpton (search) of New York told the "Take Back America" conference sponsored by two liberal groups, the Campaign for America's Future (search) and the Institute for America's Future (search).

The three-day conference, which concluded Friday, highlighted a rift within the party that will play out through the 2004 presidential primary campaign.

Centrist groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council (search) argue that former President Clinton won two terms by broadening the party with moderate policies such as free trade and welfare reform. They want Democratic presidential candidates to appeal to the wide swath of voters in the political center.

Liberal groups, who tend to dominate the presidential nominating process, say many traditional Democrats have stopped voting because the party is no longer distinctive from the GOP. They want the candidates to court disenchanted liberals.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who delivered a party-bashing speech to the group Thursday, hopes to persuade party voters that he is the most traditional Democrat in the nomination fight.

"What is shameful is a national party that 'misplaces' its moral compass and cannot provide strong direction to its candidates, members and donors," read a four-page letter signed by Dean and obtained by The Associated Press. Speaking of the 2002 midterm elections, he said, "Too many races were not lost -- they were forfeited by our party's leadership and that is truly shameful."

"It is my belief that we can reverse that outcome by using our party's greatest strength and currently its most underutilized resource -- individuals participating in politics by working at the polls, making phone calls, canvassing neighborhoods, contributing money and showing passion for issues," said Dean, who plans to formally announce his candidacy June 23 in Vermont.

Casting himself as the most liberal presidential candidate, Sharpton said of his rivals: "This can't be a clubhouse race with a nice pretty resume. We've got to go to the streets ... We've got to get America back so we can take America back!"

The crowd of several hundred roared with approval, especially when he compared the party leadership to a stubborn donkey that needs prodding.

"I'm trying to wake it up," he said. "Because if I can slap this donkey I can make it kick George Bush out of the White House."

Sharpton did not identify which party leaders he believes have been complacent. Nor did he single out any rival when he claimed to have been the first candidate opposed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and said, "Some candidates came late, left early" in voicing opposition to the war.

One Democratic candidate who supported the war, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, addressed the group by videotape.

Gephardt, a longtime ally of union and other liberal interest groups, did not mention the war, but he warned that embracing GOP policies will turn voters away from the Democratic Party.

"If we don't have a candidate with clear alternatives, they're going to vote for George Bush," he said. "I'm not going to be Bush-lite."