PHILADELPHIA -- A crowd had gathered for a get-out-the-vote rally in the heart of this Democratic city. But even as fiery words tumbled from his lips, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson saw that his audience was less than pumped up.
"This may be the most critical election since 1964," Mr. Jackson thundered to the mostly black throng outside City Hall. "In 1964, we had George Wallace and Bull Connor insulting us, humiliating us, making us fight back. . . . Before, you were fired up. But today, there is a kind of coolness."
Here in Pennsylvania, Sen. Harris Wofford, a Democrat and veteran of the civil rights movement, is in danger of losing his seat unless a strong turnout can be generated among black voters, who so far seem uninterested.
"I don't always vote, even though I should know better," said Joyce Hart of West Philadelphia. "I don't know anything about the candidates.
"For all I know, they may be doing a good job. But whatever they are doing, it has not reached this level yet. I can read about it or watch it on television, but I know it has not reached here."
The chill extends far beyond Philadelphia. As Election Day approaches, Democratic leaders across the country fear that they may be unable to stoke the flagging enthusiasm of black voters, the party's most loyal group of supporters.
A Times-Mirror poll released yesterday found that 49 percent of black registered voters are considered likely to go to the polls Election Day, compared with 64 percent of whites. Without a big turnout from black voters, Democrats may be unable to prevent the Republicans from picking up numerous seats in House, Senate and gubernatorial races.
Part of the problem is that many blacks are as frustrated as others with the seeming ineffectiveness of government. Also, there are virtually no close races in majority-black congressional districts to fuel black interest. But perhaps most telling is that many black would-be voters say they feel ignored by Democratic campaigns that are focused on appealing to suburban whites who have been fleeing to the Republican Party.
"All of the poll numbers show strong support among African-Americans for Democratic candidates," said Chaka Fattah, a black Democratic congressional candidate from Philadelphia who is virtually assured of election in his heavily Democratic district. "The question becomes, what is the turnout going to be? There is a great deal of concern about reaching out to what appears to be disaffected white Democratic voters. But what that means for African-Americans is a less-than-engaging campaign effort."
For the Democrats, much is at stake. They are entangled in dozens of tough races with Republicans, and are in danger of losing control of Congress and several key governorships to Republicans. In several states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, California and Virginia, tight Senate or gubernatorial races could turn on the number of black voters who go to the polls.
In every case, the larger the black vote, the better the Democratic chances of staving off the Republican charge. But to the chagrin ofblack leaders involved in get-out-the-vote efforts, Democratic candidates are making few appeals targeted specifically at black voters.
"I guess it is a tactical strategy on the part of candidates who don't want to become too ethnically oriented for fear of losing votes in the general population," said state Sen. Diane E. Watson of California. "But black votes have proven to be the margin of victory for many Democratic candidates in the past."
Indeed, when Democrats wrested control of the Senate from Republicans in 1986, it was with the help of an energized black electorate that voted in unusually large numbers.
The Democratic National Committee recently assembled Ms. Watson, Mr. Jackson and dozens of other civil rights, labor and political leaders with Vice President Al Gore to plot 11th-hour strategy for sparking black interest in the Nov. 8 election.
Since then, Mr. Jackson has muted his own criticism of President Clinton and traveled to several cities in hopes of rallying blacks to the polls.
"By and large, Democrats have been running away from their base," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "Sometimes, they have been hostile toward their base. You cannot win if you run away from your blocking and support base. As a result, black voters have not been energized. But they must be energized because the stakes are so high."
During a half-day swing through Philadelphia this week, Mr. Jackson tried to whip up enthusiasm for Democrats by saying that blacks have the most to lose if Republicans gain control of Congress. He said many of the Republicans who would assume leadership posts if their party wins have proved "hostile" to black interests.
"If Wofford loses, if Robb loses, if Kennedy loses, who will be empowered in the process?" Mr. Jackson said at a breakfast meeting with clergymen and local political leaders. "A vote against Wofford is a vote for Jesse Helms to become head of a committee. It's a vote for Orrin Hatch. It's a vote for Strom Thurmond. It's a vote for Bob Dole."
But Mr. Jackson's message is a tough sell here, because many would-be voters say they feel disconnected from the Democratic candidates and their campaigns. The race for governor, for instance, has centered on get-tough-on-crime themes that neglect crime-prevention strategies and leave many black voters cold. As a result, Democratic candidates conjure only the vaguest of images, and no detectable enthusiasm among black residents in West Philadelphia's Haddington neighborhood.
"I plan to vote, but only because I think it is my civic duty to vote," said Patricia Wilson, a retiree, as she swept the sidewalk in front of her row home. "One of them is as good as another to me. I know their names, that's all."
Her daughter, Darlene Wardlaw, 34, seemed even more put off. "I may or may not vote -- I don't think it really matters. They get in, then they do whatever they want."
Asked whether she was impressed that Mr. Wofford, a Howard University law school graduate, had served as a civil rights liaison for President John F. Kennedy and was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ms. Wardlaw waved her hand and said, "People are worried about what happens now, not what happened years ago."