Outside View: Studying DC's primary colors


WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- Covering the presidential nominating politics for members of the press corps used to mean tramping through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire. They will still do that, but this year some lucky members of the Washington press corps will be given assignments more to their liking.

Those states will still be important, but covering the machinations of the Democrat presidential campaign is more a crosstown venture than ever before for the press corps because of the effort put forth by statehood activists in Washington, D.C., to establish a presidential primary that will become first in the nation. Reporters can attend a candidate's appearance in Washington's heavily African-American Northeast section and still be back home in time for bed in their predominantly white, Northwest Washington homes.


Washington is a city that presents an interesting contrast to Iowa and New Hampshire; it has a Democrat electorate composed of key elements of the modern Democrat coalition -- blacks, Hispanics, and highly educated "new class" whites -- who are much less present in the Iowa and New Hampshire electorates. But it skews the city electorate well to the left of the party overall, and way, way to the left of the nation.


Conventional wisdom held that this primary would provide a strong boost to the candidacy of the Rev. Al Sharpton. It is unlikely that Sharpton will be able to win many other -- if any -- primary contests, but this initial win could provide a big boost to his ambitions, perhaps putting him in the running for a Cabinet post and possibly even consideration for the vice presidential slot.

But Sharpton is no shoo-in. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran in 1984, he had been the beneficiary of a largely favorable press that did not scrutinize his words and deeds in the same manner that he received later on. His derogatory reference to New York as "Hymietown" proved costly to his reputation within the Jewish community but did not dampen his support from the black community. Sharpton starts the race as a more polarizing figure.

At this point, there is also former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., to contend with. As a black woman and feminist, her candidacy has the potential to slice into Sharpton's vote, perhaps even siphoning off some white feminists as well. As someone who has held public office, she offers more credibility as an aspirant for national office than Sharpton, although she, too, brings personal baggage. At this point, Moseley Braun's potential may exceed her ability to realize it because she recently pleaded with EMILY's List to support her financially. If they don't, Moseley Braun said, the odds are she will have to drop out.


If both Sharpton and Moseley Braun are still in the race by the time the Washington primary is held, the black vote may well be split, paving the way for a white candidate to win.

It is important to realize that general election exit poll data shows Democratic candidates receiving the overwhelming majority of the black vote, creating an understandable but superficial impression that the vote should be thought of in monolithic terms. However, factors such as class, education, generation and gender can be important dividing points within the black electorate, particularly in primary elections.

Some blacks, most likely not a majority, but particularly those in the middle and upper classes, may opt to support one of the white Democrats, viewing them to be more electorally viable and credible choices than either Moseley Braun or Sharpton, whose candidacies are clearly considered to be symbolic ones, at least by the news media.

It remains to be seen whether "it's our turn" appeals by Sharpton or Moseley Braun will have the same powerful resonance that they did in 1984 in Jackson's galvanizing campaign.

Despite the black majority of voters in Washington, a majority of the members of the district's city council are white. Whites overall tend to vote in disproportionately higher numbers than blacks. Indeed, Washington's current mayor, Anthony Williams, was nominated and elected in 1998 primarily because of his overwhelming support among white voters.


If it is true that white voters might determine the outcome in Washington, then the question becomes who else might pull off a victory, thus giving that candidate momentum going into Iowa and New Hampshire.

One possibility is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. As is the case with a number of candidates, Lieberman spends much of his time in Washington, and the city is essentially his second home.

What may provide him with an edge is that the city has a large and very politically active Jewish community. When Lieberman announced his very different healthcare plan, which focuses on curing very expensive diseases rather than expanding coverage, he did so in Washington. All the other candidates who had spoken on the issue up to that point did so in other parts of the country.

Lieberman, if he continues to campaign in Washington, could become somewhat of a favorite son. He already has backed a number of measures sponsored by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's non-voting delegate to Congress. Norton is advancing the argument that the Washington residents pay millions in taxes but have no real representation in Congress. Lieberman echoes that view, which is clearly popular with Washington voters.


Another Democratic candidate who has been spending a lot of time in Washington and who is drawing enthusiastic crowds is former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont. Given the intense liberalism held by many of Washington's white Democrats, Dean's passionate opposition to the war in Iraq may prove to be very attractive. It may also resonate with black voters who feel we should be taking care of matters at home rather than overseas.

If domestic issues continue to grow in importance, particularly healthcare, Dean may also do well on that issue. He is a physician by profession and, as governor of Vermont, can actually say that he administered a state government's healthcare system, something that his rivals who are in Congress cannot do. Under his state administration, Dean claims to have expanded coverage in a cost-efficient manner, although his rivals will no doubt scrutinize such assertions to try to undercut his credibility.

If Dean wins in Washington, he would probably benefit most from that victory. He is getting a considerable following in Iowa, where again the activists who are most likely to turn out to participate in the caucus are well to the left of the majority of the Democratic electorate. He could make use of the momentum generated by a win in Washington to catapult to at least a second place showing in Iowa. Then comes New Hampshire. He has been governor in a neighboring state, and polls show him in a virtual dead heat with Sen. John Kerry, who represents next-door Massachusetts.


A Dean victory would bring the kind of coverage reserved for the first female golfer to join the PGA tour in 58 years. That is because despite the analysis just offered, the prevailing opinion in the news media is that Sharpton will win and win big. This conventional wisdom will be even more prevalent if Moseley Braun is already out of the race.

Of course, if white voters are split almost evenly among the white candidates, then Sharpton will get his first and only primary victory here. Many Democrats have complained for years about the disproportionate influence wielded over their nominating process by Iowa and New Hampshire.

The advent of the Washington primary may help them to win control of the party, but absent a seismic shift in the national's political psyche, it still remains to be seen if they still have a message that can appeal to the country.

-- Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.

-- Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers on subjects of public interest.

Latest Headlines