The Democratic Party may be about to experience a battle for its Jewish soul. Less than a year before the first primary, the field for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination has turned into a crowd, but two names have special significance for Jewish voters and the politicians who woo them: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- the cautious, conservative lawmaker and the rhetorical bomb thrower.
Sharpton's presence could trigger the long-predicted reevaluation of the Democrats by many Jewish voters, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg -- especially if the civil rights leader does better than expected in the polls and primaries. And since expectations for Sharpton are minimal, any kind of positive showing during the primary season could drive more Jewish voters and contributors into the GOP orbit.
Sharpton "reminds a lot of Jewish voters about what they've come to dislike about the Democratic Party," Ginsberg said. "It will sharpen longstanding concerns."
Any success by Sharpton could have an especially significant impact on Jewish campaign contributors, he added.
"That will be "a real problem for party leaders; without Jews there isn't much of a Democratic Party, and they'd better start saving their nickels and dimes, because they're not going to get as many Jewish dollars," Ginsberg said.
But Republicans shouldn't start celebrating yet, Ginsberg warned. A strong showing by Lieberman, and the prospect of the first major party nominee for president, could "cement Jewish ties to the Democrats." Most analysts predict a Lieberman candidacy would draw a record Jewish vote.
But it's not just the Jews. The Lieberman-Sharpton dynamic is critical for Democratic leaders whose fractious party will face a mostly unified GOP.
"The relationship between Lieberman and his backers and Sharpton and his backers may well determine whether the Democratic Party remains united for the fall '04 campaign or suffers grievous wounds that make its victory impossible," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
On the surface, it's an unequal contest in every respect. Lieberman starts the race with high national name recognition, a sophisticated fundraising machine and few negatives. The party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, he worked his way up to the nomination battle the traditional way: through years of elective office and efforts to craft a reputation of sober leadership.
Last week, a Time-CNN poll put Lieberman at the top of the heap, with 16 percent of the Democratic voters; Sharpton was at seven percent. But the civil rights activist came in ahead of Florida Sen. Bob Graham, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- all more "mainstream" candidates.
Â Sharpton has never won an election and has little connection with the party hierarchy. He has huge negatives, the result of high-profile controversies like the Tawana Brawley affair and his actions during the Crown Heights riots in 1991, a particular sore point with Jews.
But there is also a huge expectations gap. Lieberman has to win some big primaries to remain competitive, whereas Sharpton only has to do well enough to keep his low-budget campaign sputtering along. That leads to the nightmare scenario for Jewish Democrats: an early end to the Lieberman campaign, along with a continuing Sharpton presence right up to the convention.
"There's a tremendous amount at stake here," said University of Richmond political scientist Akiba Covitz.
Sharpton is the "public face" of rising black anti-Semitism, he said. "American Jews continue to see anti-Semitism as the most pressing issue facing them today; to many, Sharpton represents that."
Images of Sharpton sharing platforms with the other candidates will "put a sharp and clear face on those concerns," he said. Any concessions the party is forced to make to Sharpton will reinforce the growing feeling that the party is more interested in appeasing black voters than holding on to the Jews.
And Sharpton, unlike the frontrunners, doesn't have to actually win any primaries to hang on.
"Because he's such a nontraditional candidate, he's positioned to fight to the bitter end," Covitz said. "You can probably look forward to him giving a speech at the Democratic convention."
Covitz said there are many "ifs" to this scenario. Sharpton could do so poorly in the early primaries that he fades from view, if not from the primary ballots. The recent entry of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois into the race could split the black vote, hurting Sharpton's chances in key southern primaries and in northern cities.
And of course, there's the Lieberman factor. A very strong showing by the veteran senator would offset Sharpton's negatives among Jewish voters, Covitz said. But at the very least, Sharpton's presence in the campaign will shake loose "some Jews who are sitting on the fence, and perhaps a significant number of resources," he said.
In private, few Democrats believe Sharpton will just fade away. He is the most colorful candidate in a drab lineup; nobody expects him to win the nomination, but there is an almost universal belief he will be successful in attracting just the kind of attention the party doesn't want as it tries to galvanize black voters without losing Jewish votes and money.
The Sharpton-Lieberman matchup comes at a time when some studies suggest the Jewish electorate could be riper than ever for a shift to the GOP -- although even Jewish Republicans agree that past predictions of a big shift have proven wildly inaccurate.
According to a recent survey by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, younger Jews are likelier than their leaders to call themselves Republicans. Cohen also points to a growing tendency of more affluent Jews to claim GOP identification. And almost half of the Jewish voters who supported Vice President Al Gore in 2000 say they're not sure they would make the same choice today.
A recent study by Gary Tobin suggested there is more anti-Semitism now in the Democratic Party than on the GOP side, reflecting both changing attitudes among African Americans and anti-Israel bias in some liberal circles.
"It's hard to miss the fact that when Congress passed a resolution strongly supporting Israel last year, almost all the opposition came from the Democratic side of the aisle," said a leading pro-Israel activist. "And you take notice when Black Caucus members provide a forum for someone like Louis Farrakhan."
Al Sharpton is positioned to highlight those fears for many Jewish voters in 2004.
"Taking all the currents together, you have a real opportunity for a Republican breakthrough," said Murray Friedman, a longtime Jewish conservative activist and former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
But he conceded that Sharpton is unlikely to stand Jewish partisan behavior on its ear. A "'breakthrough' means anywhere from 35 percent to a majority," he said. And he agreed that past predictions -- including that Jesse Jackson would drive Jews into the arms of the Republicans in the 1980s -- were followed by disappointment on voting day.
Sharpton's presence in the campaign, he said, is "one of many factors that has to align in the proper configuration for there to be any real shift."
But as 2004 approaches, he said, there is greater receptivity to the Republican domestic agenda among Jewish voters, and a growing feeling among voters who put Israel at the top of their political agenda that the Republicans have been much more supportive of the current Israeli government.
Republicans interested in Jewish outreach are licking their chops over the prospect Sharpton will do well in a few early primaries and thereby tear the party apart and drive Jews to the GOP side of the aisle. But GOP strategists say they will approach the fight gingerly.
"I don't think we want to get involved in talking about the Democrat's Sharpton problem," said a top Jewish Republican activist recently. "Sharpton's record and his character will speak for themselves."
That reflects the likeliest strategy for the Republicans: let the Sharpton-Lieberman dynamic play itself out without comment.
"If the Republicans are smart, and I believe on this they will be, they'll stay out of the Sharpton candidacy issue," said University of Virginia's Sabato. "Behind the scenes, they may encourage reporters to cover his past controversies and scandals, but the GOP benefits simply by Sharpton's presence in the contest."
A lot depends on Sharpton and Lieberman themselves in the next 12 months.
"It remains to be seen what kind of campaign Sharpton runs," said presidential prognosticator Allan J. Lichtman of American University. "This may be a candidacy that goes nowhere at all, even among black voters. He doesn't' have the kind of reputation Jesse Jackson had when he was running for the presidency."
Other factors, including President Bush's perceived shift to the right on domestic matters, could also "blunt any Jewish shift to the right," Lichtman said.
"What we don't know yet is whether the push of Sharpton will be greater than the pull of Lieberman for Jewish voters," he said, adding that the big danger for the Democrats is "if Sharpton is successful getting into the debates. Then the media has to cover him."
"The other candidates," he continued, "are not that far apart on the issues; the others are bland, so he'll really stand out. There's no Hillary in the race." Â