Jesse L. Jackson said yesterday that Democrats fared poorly in last week's midterm election because the party's leadership is incompetent when it comes to reaching out to African American, female and Latino voters at the core of the party's liberal base.

"If you cannot marshal your members into a team, then that's incompetence," Jackson said in an interview. He said Republicans took advantage of the Democrats' blunder by creating a clear message for their conservative base and hammering it home.

Jackson's unflattering assessment of what he called a virtually all-white, all-male Democratic leadership was echoed yesterday by other black activist voices at a two-hour post-election media briefing sponsored by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation at the National Press Club in Washington.

At the gathering, activists said that although African Americans continue to vote for Democrats by a 9-to-1 margin, many blacks stayed home because their party does not put money into voter registration that would tap hundreds of thousands of eligible voters and refuses to stump on issues that energize minority voters.

Jackson, a Democratic presidential contender in 1984 and 1988, met with Democratic senators yesterday, and told them that he foresees Republicans using their control of government to roll back abortion rights laws, drain public education funding and strip affirmative action preferences.

Jackson wasn't alone in calling for a shake-up at the top of the Democratic Party. University of Maryland political science professor Ronald A. Walters went further, saying Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe "have to go."

Walters also took a swipe at black Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (Tenn.), a moderate Democrat who is making a bid to become House minority leader. "Harold is nice, but he's not politically seasoned," Walters said of the 32-year-old Ford. "He's too far right of center, and he needs to come home."

Roland Martin, editor of, disagreed with Walters, saying that black people need a young African American at the leadership table who has a proven ability to work with both moderates and liberals.

Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Democrats ignored black voters, their most loyal backers. During the campaign, as Democrats steered clear of issues such as affirmative action, education, taxes and confirmation of judges, black voters didn't see their concerns reflected by the candidates.

Arnwine said voters approached her and asked, " 'How do I know my vote's going to count? I don't feel like going through it. I don't feel like bothering with all that.' "

During audience participation, even observers threw stones, comparing Democrats to "cross-dressers" who tried to entice white voters by strutting in Republican clothing.

By overlooking minorities to appeal to white voters, Democratic candidates "tried to make chicken salad out of chicken manure," said George Curry, a black media executive and former editor of Emerge. "The Democratic Party got away from their base. Like them or not, Republicans know their message, and they didn't get away from their base."