Republican groups trying to link Gore to Al Sharpton

NEW YORK — With Democrat Al Gore's presidential candidacy surging, the Republican National Committee and its Jewish support group are hoping to erode his support among Jews and whites by linking him to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"Al Sharpton is a racist anti-Semite with blood on his hands," said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for the RNC in Washington who is gathering information on controversial Sharpton statements on behalf of Jim Nicholson, the national chairman. "He is the David Duke of the Democrat Party. Why has Al Gore and most of the Democrat Party embraced this hate-monger?"

The RNC is distributing "talking points" on Sharpton to Republican activists and, according to sources, Nicholson is mulling an ad campaign highlighting Sharpton's Feb. 13 private meeting with Gore in hopes of eroding Gore's appeal to conservative and moderate voters. The vice president swept 16 states, including California, in the crucial Super Tuesday primaries last week.

"We're trying to wrap Gore's victory around kissing Sharpton's ring," said one Republican insider.

The RNC is also circulating comments by Republican Jewish Coalition Director Matthew Brooks that "Al Sharpton's record of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism is well-documented and beyond question." Brooks blasted Gore supporter Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), who recently said anti-Semitism attributed to Sharpton was "exaggerated and overdrawn."

Sharpton, meanwhile, is firing back by pointing to his 1995 meeting with Republican Gov. George Pataki, who chairs the New York campaign of GOP front-runner George W. Bush. Sharpton visited the governor's mansion in 1995.

Questioning why Nicholson did not criticize Pataki for the meeting, Sharpton vowed to release TV footage of the get-together to make the chairman "look like a complete idiot. How does he impose on Democrats what he doesn't on Pataki?"

Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said Sharpton had been one of "between 75 to 100" black leaders invited to Albany by the governor at that time.

"The governor did a lot of reaching out in the first term to people who supported him, and some who didn't," said McKeon.

But Sharpton insists he received a personal invitation and was asked to bring along a handful of other black clergy for an intimate breakfast with Pataki.

The Sharpton tactic is an apparent GOP response to the Democrats' attacks on Bush for his appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which has been accused of spreading racism, anti-Catholicism and homophobia.

Gore's campaign staff did not return calls.

But asked about Sharpton during a March 1 debate in Los Angeles, Gore cited the more than 125,000 votes for the minister in the 1997 New York mayoral primary. "He is undeniably a person to whom some people in the city look as a spokesperson," said Gore, according to a CNN transcript.

Gore acknowledged that Sharpton had made some controversial statements. "I do condemn the language that he used. I think that in America we believe in redemption and the capacity of all our people to transcend limitations that they have made evident in their lives in the past," the vice president said.

Gore later added: "Look at the number of rabbis who went to join Rev. Sharpton in his organizing of demonstrations and pickets following the Abner Louima case and the [Amadou] Diallo case."

Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, charged that he was sodomized by four Brooklyn police officers in 1997. Three white officers were convicted for covering up the incident. Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, was killed in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building last year when police officers opened fire.

A small number of Jews affiliated with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice have joined forces with Sharpton in his protests against police brutality. The majority of organized Jewry, however, will have nothing to do with him.

In fact, several New York City Jewish activists, such as Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, in the Bronx, and Brooklyn state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said they steered clear of the Diallo protests out of reluctance to make common cause with Sharpton. Some who marched with Sharpton later admitted it made them uncomfortable.

It is unclear whether the Republican tactic stands to hurt Gore, given his long history of support for Israel and other Jewish causes.

"Al Gore has a longstanding positive relationship with the Jewish community," said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs in Washington. "Very few people will not vote for him solely on the basis that he met with Al Sharpton. At the same time, at some point in the campaign he's going to have to address it [in the Jewish community]."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Jewish community "is sophisticated enough to keep its eyes on the issues and is able to differentiate between what is significant and what is hyperbole.

"Al Sharpton has been a lot of things: a rabble-rouser who plays on the fringes of anti-Semitism and has engaged in racism. But he is not an enemy of the Jewish people."