Politics has winners and losers. Some of the recent winners are Rep. Ed Zschau in California, Sen. James Abnor in South Dakota and, in New Jersey, the old concept from brotherhood ads that what matters is not "the color you are" but whether you can play the game. In Newark, nearly 60 percent of the voters said that Rep. Peter Rodino could play the game.

The color that Rodino happens to be is white. That happens not to be the color of a majority of the voters in his district. And on that basis alone, Jesse Jackson among others thought it was time that Rodino be retired from Congress. After 38 years of impeccable advocacy of civil rights, he was declared unqualified on the basis of race.

That was precisely the issue raised by Rodino's challenger in the Democratic primary, city councilman Donald M. Payne, and seconded by Jackson. He decried the fact that New Jersey did not have a single black congressman; it was up to Newark -- a majority black city -- to provide one. Payne, by virtue of skin color and a modest political office, was to be the man.

It did not matter to Jackson that Rodino, going for his 20th term, has the sort of seniority that is almost unheard of nowadays. It did not matter to him that Rodino is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and in that capacity has acted and voted precisely the way Jackson would have wanted. If you needed someone to bottle up a bill to ban school busing, Rodino was there -- even though that sort of thing won him no friends in his base in Newark's Italian wards. In fact, if you needed a real, unapologetic liberal to watch out for both the civil rights and economic concerns of blacks, Rodino was your man.

It showed in the numbers. Rodino gets ratings that, in the Reagan Era, look like typographical errors: 100 percent from Americans for Democratic Action; 95 percent from the AFL-CIO's political action wing and actual zeros from conservative groups. If Jesse Jackson could construct a congressman from scratch, he would build a Peter Rodino.

But he wouldn't color him white. It is understandable that Jackson maintains that blacks are underepresented in Congress. They are. (Some, citing black voter turnout and registration figures, would argue about whose fault that was.) And no one would argue either that there are plenty of examples of whites voting according to race. (As with blacks, though, there are contrary examples too.) But the obligation of a political leader -- and Jackson is that -- is to provide moral leadership, not to pander to racial politics.

Jackson, though, does that. After all his talk of building a Rainbow Coalition, his actions are monochromatic. When he once again runs for president, perhaps the other colors of the rainbow will return. But if he rejects a worthy politician simply on the basis of race, what stops others from doing the same? After all, if blacks are urged to vote for a black simply because he is black, then why shouldn't whites do the same? There is an answer to that, but Jackson has once again failed to provide it.

The answer is that race in the New Jersey contest was irrelevant. Would Payne's election, no matter how qualified he may be, make life better for Newark's blacks? Would he have been able to raise their standard of living? Would he have instantly become a committee chairman and have been able to bottle up bills that most blacks oppose? Indeed, would the Reagan administration have kept a Payne in mind when even considering legislation that affected civil rights? No way. Payne would have been just another congressman of little to no consequence.

All things being equal, it's natural for blacks to feel that another black could best represent them. Some women feel the same way about other women, and from the voting statistics, it's clear some men feel just the opposite. But in Newark, things were never equal between Rodino and Payne -- or, if they were, that hardly mattered to Jackson. Instead, he made race and only race the issue -- turning his back for that reason alone on a man with whom he had no disagreement of consequence.

To Newark's credit, it didn't work. Peter Rodino will now get his 20th term and continue as a champion of civil rights. The loser in this race was Jesse Jackson. To paraphrase the old brotherhood ad, who cares what color he is, the game he plays stinks.