Who needs the black vote? Kemp factor: Clinton can take votes for granted, but not the turnout.


SENDING RUNNING mate Jack Kemp to campaign in South Central Los Angeles doesn't mean Bob Dole has abandoned the Republicans' vaunted Southern Strategy and is now counting on African-American votes to win him the presidency. Mr. Dole would love to increase the typically 10 percent of the black vote garnered by a Republican. But he knows the success of a GOP presidential candidate still hinges on his ability to bond with white, male conservatives.

Mr. Kemp's mission is guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. The urban credentials of the former housing secretary give him credibility when he says the Republicans will no longer write off the black vote. Even if he doesn't convince significantly more African-Americans to vote for Dole/Kemp, he could increase their ambivalence about a Clinton/Gore ticket that has abandoned welfare and back-slid on affirmative action. He could reduce black voter turnout.

That possibility has not been missed by Jesse Jackson, who warned in his speech at the Democratic National Convention that, "In the absence of our enthusiasm, there'll be Dole and Gingrich and Trent Lott and Clarence Thomas." President Clinton, who has tried to avoid links to the likes of Mr. Jackson, may find himself depending greatly on the proven campaign skills of the reverend, thanks to Mr. Kemp.

The inner-city campaigning of Mr. Kemp could force the Democrats to spend more time and money than they wanted to keep that base intact. That is good news for African-American voters, who have largely been taken for granted by the Democrats and ignored by the Republicans. All the attention, however, is unlikely to translate into anything of substance. Mr. Kemp isn't retreating from his new anti-affirmative action stance, and Mr. Clinton can't afford to regain the dreaded "liberal" tag he has in the past two years worked so hard to discard.

Regardless of motive, the party of Lincoln deserves credit for finally remembering a black vote is as important as any. As a result, this election may become more significant for its impact on future campaigns than for whether Mr. Dole or Mr. Clinton wins in November.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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