CBS News Reporter Ben Ferguson is traveling with the Sharpton campaign in South Carolina.
Wiping his brow with a handkerchief behind the pulpit at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the adroit Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the congregation as both preacher and presidential candidate.
"We can't have the few chose for the many," said Sharpton, hinting that Tuesday's New Hampshire primary will do little to represent the will of a much more diverse America.
The man seen by many as a sound bite machine and political instigator in crowded television debates is hoping to pull off his biggest surprise yet and win South Carolina's Democratic primary on February 3. Close to 50 percent of the voters expected to turn out for the election will be African American, and Sharpton hopes to use the political race to put the spotlight on racial politics.
Primary watchers are quick to insist that Sharpton has little chance of winning his party's nomination. But Sharpton, who rarely pays heed to punditry, says this doesn't bother him nor should it bother the voters. "There are seven people in this race," said the reverend, matter of factly. "Six of them are going to lose."
Sharpton often refers to Jesse Jackson's presidential run twenty years ago, noting that while Jackson failed to reach the White House, his mere presence in the campaign made inroads for the African American community. Sharpton credits Jackson's campaign with a wide range of achievements, from raising attention about apartheid in South Africa to helping Doug Wilder of Virginia win election as the nation's first black governor. "We got more out of Jesse losing then we did from most folks winning," Sharpton says.
Win or lose, Sharpton has promised to take his issues all the way to the Democratic convention in Boston. In a letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Sharpton promised to stay in the race, saying it is his intention "to ensure that the Party's platform is progressive, inclusive and reflective of the concerns of minority communities."
In these communities, many tucked away in the pine-tree back roads of South Carolina, Sharpton's message is gaining a solid following. Statewide polls from just a few weeks ago showed him tied for second, behind frontrunner John Edwards; the latest polls show him in third, ahead of both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. This, combined with the reluctance of influential African American congressman Jim Clyburn to endorse another candidate after Dick Gephardt dropped out, has the potential to work in Sharpton's favor.
Like most politicians, Sharpton has mistakes from his past he will have to explain. But the man running for president today seems changed from the one implicated in the Tawana Brawley hoax some 17 years ago.
"I don't care how pious you appear to us, all of us have done enough wrong," says Sharpton in his sermon.
Make no mistake: the preacher from Brooklyn is still willing to push the envelope on the issues he feels are important. But these days he is more careful about picking his battles, and next week's South Carolina primary could be his biggest battle yet.
By Ben Ferguson