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The electorate's not fired up


Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan has never held elective office, but he is a professional communicator who knows exactly what he wants to say and exactly how to say it best.

That's why there was no mistaking Buchanan's message Monday when he took time out in Mississippi to lay flowers on the grave of a great-grandfather who fought with the Confederates during the Civil War.

Buchanan noted that his ancestors were "rebels" like himself and he vowed that if southerners voted for him in the Super Tuesday primaries March 10, they would exact a measure of "revenge" for Union General William T. Sherman's famous scorched-earth march through Georgia.

You might also recall that Buchanan was a presidential adviser when former President Ronald Reagan laid flowers on the graves of German soldiers at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, so he is no novice in the wreath-laying bit.

Now Buchanan could claim that he wasn't trying to send any special messages Monday but, -- nah, there's nothing that Buchanan could credibly claim.

Buchanan's signals on what I call the "kinder, gentler" issue illustrate the particular importance of this presidential election campaign to black Americans.

Yet, black Americans may have less say in the outcome of this campaign than at any time since the 1960s, and that pattern probably will be established in Maryland's March 3 primary.

Who are we to vote for?

The Republican candidates, needless to say, are a complete wash.

Now that Buchanan has staked out the low ground on the kinder-gentler issue, we can expect his opponent, President Bush, a notoriously malleable politician, to quickly follow suit. Coming soon: Bush sacrifices a goat at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine in Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates have been campaigning fiercely here, but they've been unable to kindle fires in anyone -- blacks or whites.

The problem is that people have very strong perceptions about what the problems are, but they don't have strongly held views about solutions, and none of the candidates has so far managed to convince us that they have the answers.

But this year, the Democrats also appear to have written off the urban vote in general and the black vote in particular until recently.

"I certainly don't detect any strong excitement for any of the five candidates," noted attorney Meldon Hollis, a city school board member and radio commentator.

"The dialogue you hear from all five has excluded those issues that bring us out to the polls -- civil rights, urban poverty, inner-city schools. There's no one to move you. Most African-Americans are lining up behind [Arkansas Bill Gov.] Clinton, but that's by default."

Clinton drew the endorsement of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke Sunday after Clinton presented a 10-page national urban strategy here. It was a key endorsement -- the mayor has begun a series of radio ads for Clinton on local stations here.

"I've talked to all of the candidates over the past few weeks and Governor Clinton had the best-defined urban agenda for the 1990s," said Schmoke, citing Clinton's call for a Domestic G.I. Bill as one example.

But even the mayor could not avoid sounding as though Clinton won his endorsement partly by default. "I talked to most of the candidates these past few weeks and I listened to their speeches. I'm not going to say none of the others have spoken to urban issues, I just didn't hear it as clearly," said Schmoke.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas picked up an endorsement from Gov. William Donald Schaefer. But frankly, Tsongas sounded as unenthusiastic about Schaefer as Schaefer sounded about him.

The big action March 3 should be in suburban Washington, where voters should turn out in big numbers to select a representative for the newly created congressional 4th District.

But the front-runners in that race acknowledged that none of the presidential candidates has sparked any excitement among voters. None of them were willing to make an endorsement.

So, despite the intense concern over the future direction of our country, I predict, at most, a mediocre voter turnout March 3 -- and that's if the weather is fair.

The scary thing is this: The rest of the country will be looking to us for direction.

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