Just in case you missed it -- and no doubt many did -- the best debate of this campaign season occurred during the summer and featured President Bush and Al Sharpton. (Sorry, Senator Kerry.) It was not a head-to-head contest, and the only time the two men were even in the same room was during Bush's opening salvo.
"Is it a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one political party?" Bush asked a predominantly black audience at the National Urban League convention in July. "How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?"
Those were trick questions, of course. The issue was not whether Democrats took blacks for granted but why Bush, after promising a more compassionate social agenda, reneged on that promise. He went so far as to appropriate a slogan from the Children's Defense Fund, "Leave No Child Behind," then proceeded to abandon children by the millions.
You had to wait almost a month for Sharpton's rebuttal, which hit hard at what he saw as an attempt by desperate Republicans to sway black votes in the absence of any policy that might win them over.
"Mr. President, you said would we have more leverage if both parties got our votes, but we didn't come this far playing political games," Sharpton said in a speech delivered in prime time at the Democratic National Convention. "It was those who earned our vote that got our vote. . . . Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs, soaked in the blood of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, soaked in the blood of four little girls in Birmingham. This vote is sacred. This vote can't be bargained away. This vote can't be given away. Mr. President, in all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale."
Sharpton's words have taken on a special relevance in light of a recent poll showing black support for Bush has increased to 18 percent -- double what it was in 2000. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which conducted the survey, cited opposition to same-sex marriages and civil unions as the main reasons more blacks are siding with Bush.
As it turns out, this is a pulpit-driven spike, with some black ministers apparently choosing to ignore war and poverty to become gay bashers for Bush. Are they trading their support for some of that faith-based initiative cash the Bush administration has been spreading around?
At the Urban League, Bush certainly wowed 'em. According to a White House transcript, his 39-minute speech was interrupted by applause 60 times and drew more than a few shouts of "Amen!" Then again, it's worth noting that the Bush campaign paid for the event, at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center Hotel.
It's too bad that Sharpton's address was not more widely seen. The mainstream media essentially punted when it came to convention coverage. If you did see Sharpton, say, on some cable TV station, you no doubt noticed the startling reactions of some commentators. He was talking too much, said Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball." "We're taking him off the air," Matthews said. And poof, just like that, Reverend Al was gone.
Some even contended that Sharpton had hurt the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, because the speech had somehow scared the great white undecided voter. Perhaps, if you find scary a speech that sent chills up the spine and raised the roof at a national political convention.
Sharpton was seated in the front row at the Urban League engagement, and Bush quipped, "I appreciate your putting your hat in the ring."
To which Sharpton replied, "It's not over."
Not until every sacred vote is counted.