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Kerry makes push to get black vote

WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry, stung by criticism of his campaign from some senior black leaders, will today launch a series of ads on black-owned broadcast stations, and is negotiating a new plan to make the Rev. Jesse Jackson a prominent player in the get-out-the-vote effort in battleground states.

The moves are being made amid grumbling from some black leaders that Kerry has not done enough to excite African-American voters, the Democrats' most reliable voter bloc, and that he has bypassed veteran black leaders such as Jackson to campaign with a new breed of younger black congressmen.

Kerry is scheduled to speak today before the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which is ''the kickoff to our real thrust" to energize black voters, Bill Lynch, Kerry's deputy campaign manager, said in an interview.

And he said Jackson, who will campaign in Louisiana for Kerry on Thursday, is ''going to be very active in helping us develop strategy and help us get out the vote," Lynch said.

Until now, Kerry has largely relied on a younger generation of elected officials who are mounting what they call a highly organized effort to get out the black vote in battleground states, and are campaigning in black churches, beauty shops, and community meetings virtually every day that the US House of Representatives is not in session.

Leading the effort are several younger members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representatives Gregory W. Meeks of New York, Kendrick B. Meek of Florida, and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee.

But while African-American leaders have applauded the involvement of the younger generation -- Meeks is 41; Meek, 38; and Ford, 34 -- they've also expressed annoyance that Kerry is not depending more on such popular figures as Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- politically-minded preachers who have alienated some white voters but have a history of registering new voters and getting them to the polls.

Jackson can also attract much bigger crowds than local congressmen who may not be well known outside their districts, several black activists said.

''The perception from the individuals I'm hearing from, the Rev. Jackson types, is that the Boston elite is cherry-picking whom they want to deal with," said Lamell McMorris, a former director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. ''That's not a very effective strategy if you're really serious about reaching out to African-Americans. That perception has to be nipped in the bud immediately."

Ron Walters, a University of Maryland professor, said that while most African-American voters dislike President Bush, they have not yet developed a solid relationship with Kerry.

''It's nothing like the relationship with [former President Bill] Clinton," said Walters, who managed Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984. ''Kerry's in a honeymoon period of trying to establish some sort of relationship. The fact that he hasn't established a relationship already is really sort of telling."

Jackson himself uttered a veiled criticism of Kerry this week, telling CNN that ''Mr. Kerry is reaching out, but he needs more than a shake-up. A shake-up cannot just be a vanilla shake. It has to be a bonding of the base."

In 1988, Jackson overcame initial doubts about Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis, and the Dukakis campaign provided Jackson with his own plane to travel the country and help motivate black voters. This year, said Lynch of the Kerry campaign, Jackson ''will have his own plan, he will not have his own plane," but acknowledged that logistics of Jackson's campaign operation were still under discussion.

Jackson did not respond to messages left at his Rainbow Coalition headquarters.

The Kerry campaign believes black turnout can be the key to victory in several swing states, Lynch said. If Democrats can turn out the African-American and Orlando-area Puerto Rican vote this November, Kerry would take Florida, Lynch said. The Kerry campaign is also holding 261 organizing conventions around the country to mobilize black Democrats.

Meeks and Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and chairman of the black caucus, said Kerry has worked closely with its members on small-business legislation and other issues. And while Kerry does not yet have the close relationship with African-American voters that Clinton had, blacks will turn out in droves if Kerry emphasizes matters that affect their daily lives, such as jobs, education, and health care, Cummings said.

''There's only one Bill Clinton," he said, suggesting that Clinton's magnetism was unique.

And Meeks noted that even Clinton experienced rocky times with African-American voters, and notably with Jackson, during his 1992 campaign. Only after Clinton established a record with blacks did they become solidly loyal to him, Meeks said.

An estimated 92 percent of African-American voters chose Al Gore in the 2000 election, and Democratic campaigns typically count on the black vote. But in what is shaping up as a close election, voter turnout could decide who becomes president, making it critical for a Democrat to energize the voter base, analysts say -- a task that Kerry has not had to perform in Massachusetts.

''Kerry's never had to develop strong relationships with black politicians because the black vote is so small in Massachusetts, but it's critical in states he needs," said Merle Black, an Emory University professor whose specialty is Southern politics. But he noted that Kerry won the Georgia primary in part because of his support among local African-American politicians.

Members of the 39-member black caucus will be campaigning for Kerry in the coming weeks in Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, Iowa, and Michigan, and Meeks will be on Kerry's campaign plane with the candidate in the days before the Nov. 2 election.

Blacks ''understand the difference between John Kerry and George Bush and they're going to come out for John Kerry," said Meeks. ''The question is: In how high numbers are they going to come out and vote?"

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