WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Political analysts are watching former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun impact on the Democratic presidential race as she joins seven other presidential contenders as the second black candidate and the only woman in the field.
John Samples, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government, said Moseley-Braun was supposedly asked to enter the race to serve as a counterweight to candidate and controversial civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
While she was a path-breaking legislator, Samples said Thursday, she was not a particularly successful senator. Her announcement that she planned to run for president had little traction in political circles as Washington and the East Coast was mired under a historic snowfall.
"It looks like something that might survive and go on life support within a month and a half or six weeks," Samples said of Moseley-Braun's campaign.
Moseley-Braun, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, filed papers Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission that established a presidential exploratory committee. Speaking at the National Press Club, Moseley-Braun said it was time to "take the 'Men Only' sign off of the White House door," saying she believed women have a contribution to make to move the country toward peace, prosperity and progress.
"Whether she will be able to make a difference in weakening his bid is an open question. It's an open question whether she will be able to raise money, whether she will be seen as a credible candidate by any of the Democratic primary voters,"
Sharpton and Moseley-Braun have little in common as either as public figures or as elected officials. Sharpton has never been elected to public office and has served jail time on a variety of charges, most stemming from his activities as a protestor. Moseley-Braun, 55, was elected to the Senate in 1992, served on the Judiciary and Banking Committees and supported a variety of causes including child care, women in business and education. She also served as an ambassador to New Zeland.
Sharpton's spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger told United Press International that he did not believe Moseley-Braun would erode his base of support.
Guillermo Meneses, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Moseley-Braun's candidacy brings a diversity and richness to the party. While he would not say whether Moseley-Braun would have a better chance of grasping the nomination than Sharpton, Meneses said that the more Democrats they have speaking to the public about the party's message, the better.
"It's up the voters to decide which candidate best resonates for them," Meneses said. He said it was the conviction of the party's candidates that Bush is vulnerable in 2004, particularly on domestic issues.
Moseley-Braun also lacks the ability to generate publicity like Sharpton, Samples said.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's legislative office in Washington, said Moseley-Braun has as good a chance as any of the candidates in the field.
"Keep in mind, it's still wide open. We don't know who else is coming into this race," Shelton said. "Here you have someone who has served as a U.S. senator, was a member of state Legislature in Illinois and very active in Chicago politics. She knows how to run a very diverse campaign," Shelton said.
Shelton said he did not believe Moseley-Braun would have any more effect on Sharpton's campaign than any of the other candidates.
"I hate to single Sharpton out. People keep doing that because he's African American. I appreciate that, but I don't think she's going to have any different kind of effect on Sharpton than Kerry is going to have on the other white candidates," Shelton said.
Samples compared Sharpton to former President Bill Clinton, who in 1992 exhibited a strong magnetic personality that attracted voters. However, by Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, he both attracted and alienated people, much like Sharpton does now.
Sharpton has been no stranger to controversy. He heads the nonprofit National Action Network, a civil rights organization, but has been considered a racial extremist by many. Over the past three years, Sharpton has softened his tone in an effort to transform himself into a more mainstream figure, making appearances with national political figures such as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and making treks abroad to confer with world leaders such as Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat.
"He is clearly a candidate that is going to go the distance," said Samples. "I don't think he'll win the nomination, but you get a strong sense that he's a candidate that knows how to raise some money, generate publicity and knows how to run a presidential campaign."
Sharpton became the touchstone of controversy in 1987 when he supported black teenager Tawana Brawley who claimed she had been raped by a gang of white men. Her story was later found to be a hoax.
Samples said Sharpton does not realize what damage the Brawley case exacted on his reputation. He said Brawley would have destroyed 99 percent of public figures, but Sharpton is still going.
In the 1990s, Sharpton was an outspoken critic of the New York Police Department's tactics, representing Abner Louima who was tortured by officers. He also spoke out against the death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant who was shot 41 times by city officers as he reached for his wallet.
And last year a 1983 FBI surveillance tape surfaced allegedly showing Sharpton with an undercover officer making a drug deal. But despite his problems and the potential baggage he brings to the political table, Samples said Sharpton should not automatically be considered an ineffective candidate.
"I would not underrate his abilities or his chances at this point," Samples said. " ... That's what we don't know about Sharpton. We don't know the extent to which he is going to motivate or excite people yet."
On the other hand, Moseley-Braun's term as senator was marred by controversy after questions arose about her campaign finances, trips to Nigeria to visit the late dictator Sani Abacha, and an incident where she compared columnist George Will to a Ku Klux Klan member. She lost her Senate seat to Republican moderate Peter Fitzgerald in 1998.
"Her defeat in the Senate was under one of those typical clouds. You can never tell whether it's smoke, fire or if there is anything there," Samples said. "It was pretty minor league stuff, but it was enough to hurt her badly." It remains to be seen if those issues will make a difference in the presidential election, he said.
Shelton said the biggest problem Moseley-Braun had while serving in the Senate was the fact she was the first black woman to serve in the upper body of Congress.
"She was being pulled in all kinds of directions, but I think she did an excellent job," Shelton said. "I think she is very clearly in the running and should be considered as formidable as any other candidate now vying for the Democratic nomination."