NEW YORK – Democratic presidential contenders are scrambling for support in what's being dubbed the Al Sharpton primary.
The civil rights leader livened up the 2004 Democratic primary with his pompadour hairdo and sharp, witty oratory. This election, the high-profile Sharpton, fresh from the fight over Don Imus' derogatory remarks, is attracting all the party's major candidates this week for his annual National Action Network convention.
The solid attendance — starting with John Edwards on Wednesday and continuing with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama later this week — reflects Sharpton's prominence in the party, concern that he might run again and the Democrats' effort to appeal to the base, particularly black voters.
No wonder the event was being called the Sharpton primary.
"I think some people really believe that we have put these things behind us; that the civil rights movement took care of all that and everyone is on a level playing field now," Edwards said in prepared remarks in which he talked about bigotry, intolerance and the Imus controversy.
In his remarks, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, a Sharpton rival in 2004, said Sharpton's commitment to civil rights was manifest in the crop of current contenders.
"I think even Dr. King would have been shocked to see the major competitors for my party for president of the United States would include an African-American, a woman and an Hispanic," Dean said, referring to Clinton, Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson
Blacks are a key bloc of the Democratic base: About 75 percent of black voters are Democrats, compared to just 45 percent of white voters. The party's presidential candidates typically are eager to showcase their civil rights credentials at large-scale gatherings like this.
Even so, the national spotlight is relatively new for the 52-year-old Sharpton, who before his presidential run was little known outside New York except for his role in the controversial 1988 Tawana Brawley case.
Sharpton was a spokesman for Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of kidnapping and rape at the hands of six white police officers was dismissed after a grand jury determined their was no evidence to support it. Sharpton has never apologized for his role in the case, which inflamed racial tensions in New York and nationally.
"The communities outside the black community remember that. He was so identified with that case," said former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who also addressed the gathering. "I thought it was incumbent on Rev. Sharpton, if he wanted to be a crossover leader as he's very capable of doing ... to say that he was wrong about that. But he chose to go another way."
If anything, Sharpton over the years has become only more famous — and more defiant. After the Imus controversy, Sharpton announced he would pressure hip-hop and rap artists to stop making degrading comments about women in their music.
The Imus case centered on the radio host's comments about the Rutgers' women's basketball team, comments described as racist and sexist.
"A major emphasis is that we want to stop misogynist records, misogynist references," he told the group to applause. "If you are coming out of the 'hood, why are you calling the people you claim were pained the names? They're calling people in the hood 'hos' and say 'Yes, ma'am' in the Hamptons."