WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- For the Democrats, the warning signs are everywhere. The 2002 off-year elections did not turn out to their benefit. The Republicans increased their majority in the U.S. House, maintained their majority of governorships and actually passed the Democrats in the total number of state legislative seats held across the country -- if just by a hair.
Not only did the GOP reverse the historic trend of the president's party losing state legislative seats in every midterm election since 1938 but, for the first time since the direct election of senators was instituted after 1913, the president's party took control of the Senate in an off-year election.
This is a major setback for a party that came within a few hundred votes of winning the White House in 2000.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the political activist who first came to national prominence during New York's racial unrest in the late 1980s, has thrown his hat into the presidential ring. National Democrats are, understandably, troubled by this development.
Former Vice President Al Gore received close to 90 percent of the black vote in the 2000 election. When the election results are examined county-by-county rather than state-by-state, the importance of the black vote in the states Gore won can be clearly seen.
So overwhelming was his support among blacks that it probably led to Gore's winning several states including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and possibly even Pennsylvania, which he carried by almost 200,000 votes.
Sharpton, whose National Action Network practices an in-your-face style of political attack, has gained stature and credibility from a public that once considered him highly suspect.
He first surfaced as a spokesman and adviser to Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old New York girl who claimed six law enforcement officials had abducted and raped her. Brawley, like Sharpton, is black while the accused officials were all white.
The allegations later proved unfounded, but not before Sharpton had elevated racial tension in the state to such a fevered pitch that New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, was forced to step in.
Sharpton, whose candidacy has been likened by many to the 1984 presidential bid by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, gives every indication that he is serious about his run for the Democratic nomination. In one sense he is a natural candidate for the party. He comes out of what is its most increasingly important and generally most reliable voting block -- black Americans.
Donna Brazile, who ran Gore's 2000 presidential bid and may in fact be the best political strategist and operative the party has, is encouraging that Sharpton's candidacy be taken seriously. In spite of Sharpton's checkered past, Brazile is urging fellow Democrats to "debate him" rather than "disown him" if his candidacy is troubled.
Running from well outside the party establishment, Sharpton may evolve into the real leader of blacks within the Democratic Party who feel the establishment takes them for granted and the Republicans have nothing to offer.
Brazile, in her analysis of the coming election, repeatedly points to data from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a group researching issues of concern to black Americans. A Joint Center survey from last fall found "a noteworthy change in black partisan identification" since the 2000 Bush-Gore contest.
"In 2002 63 percent of African-Americans were self-identified Democrats," the studies says. This represents a drop of 11 points since 2000 -- something most analysts would see as a hemorrhage in almost any other voting bloc.
Sharpton may have something to offer these people, making him a potential political power who, quite obviously, cannot be controlled. This kind of thing has been seen before.
Ross Perot, in his two runs for president from outside the two-party structure, reached out to disaffected populists, and conservative Pat Robertson's 1988 bid for the GOP nomination, while equally unsuccessful, brought tens of thousands of conservative evangelicals into the GOP. In the final analysis Robertson's people stayed on the field while, for the most part, Perot's people went home.
Sharpton's presidential run could lead to the creation of a powerful but, like Perot's, temporary voter bloc, or it could be something more permanent, something that will eventually change the Democratic Party at every level into something much closer to what he believes then it may now be.
Enter Carol Moseley-Braun, who parlayed the racial tensions of the mid-80s in Chicago into a single term in Washington. She upset entrenched Sen. Alan Dixon in a Democrat primary on her way to becoming the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Moseley-Braun is, based on her resume, a more serious candidate than Sharpton. She has actually won elective office.
Based on her single, scandal-tainted Senate term, however, she is not to be taken seriously -- unless, that is, the party solons, who cannot agree on who the presidential nominee should be, conclude that Sharpton cannot be permitted to be the only black voice in the race, the voice of black America.
This is a hard backhand to Sharpton and may, in fact, exacerbate exactly the kind of divisions that his entry into the race was meant to stop.
(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)