Blacks have a new and extraordinary opportunity to influence Democratic Party politics now that Edward Kennedy has bowed out of the race.

Many argued that Kennedy's lock on black support was so powerful that the rest of the candidates might as well confine their black appeals to polite, token efforts. I was never completely persuaded of this, since pragmatists discounted Kennedy's general election prospects. But that's all moot. With Kennedy out, the competition can and will begin in earnest. And Walter Mondale need not be the principal gainer, though he is undeniably in the best position as of now. Consider the neo-liberal alternatives, particularly that subset sometimes referred to as the Atari Democrats.

Gary Hart, for example. Hart is likely to have trouble garnering black support for a number of good reasons. First, he doesn't sound like a Democrat in the traditional sense. That is, he can talk for hours without once mentioning words like "poverty", or "racial justice." My point is not that blacks care only about issues of poverty, welfare and race, but that a successful candidate will have to convey a personal and compelling feeling for the have-nots, since so many minorities fall into that class or remember it all too well.

In the earnest rush to sound new-hat, Hart and others risk alienating those with old-style problems and values. Particularly for an election in which many voters will be motivated to find a candidate who promises a reversal of the administration's insensitivities, Hart and others will have to change.

Their second problem is that their message of economic reform, emphasizing some kind of industrial policy and the strengthening of growth industries, is threatening to many minorities and others outside the economic mainstream. In pure clinical form, these policy prescriptions can sound ominous. Abandon struggling older cities and the people in them in favor of the West and the Sunbelt? Abandon declining industries and their workers, dispatching machines and people, respectively, to the scrap heap and the social welfare safety net? Abandon the illiterate and uneducated in favor of those who can readily master a computer age?

On the reasonable assumption that Hart and others are far from being so callous, they must revise their descriptions of a stronger economy to include not only vibrant capital markets, but also affirmative efforts to include, rather than farther outdistance, those who are handicapped by historic wrongs.

This means money for compensatory training and education, and policies to make sure that increases in the size of the economic pie don't go only to those regions and population groups fortunate enough to have large forks already. As mere footnotes to a program, these features will not generate the enthusiastic support and participation of black and Hispanic voters.

Candidates will also need to recruit and pay attention to blacks and other minorities at senior levels on their staffs. I'm not making a point about hiring or affirmative action. Picking people in a campaign is a key way candidates demonstrate how much they care about particular constituencies and issues. By involving few or no blacks, or people of mediocre quality, a candidate evidences a lack of appreciation for black voters and issues of importance to them.

The bartering for support is about to begin. Blacks should take full advantage of it.