Black leader Sharpton sets sights on White House after release from jail

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The Independent US

The Rev Al Sharpton, the outspoken civil rights activist and Harlem firebrand, is back. After serving a 90-day sentence for protesting against American bombing exercises in Puerto Rico, he recaptured the spotlight at the weekend, eating chicken and speaking of a presidential run.

The so-called portly preacher revelled in media attention when he addressed hundreds of supporters at his National Action Network offices in Harlem after his release on Friday.

What was more important was hard to tell ­ his visit to Amy Ruth's restaurant with half the city's press corps in tow or his teasing refusal to reveal which of the four Democrat runners in the city's current mayoral race he intends to endorse.

The chicken drumsticks mattered because he emerged from prison 32lb (15kg) lighter after a 42-day hunger strike. His word on the mayoral race could be hugely influential. It is critical to the fortunes of Fernando Ferrer, Bronx borough president and one of the candidates, who last week won endorsements from other black leaders. Mr Ferrer, who is Hispanic, could be catapulted to the front of the field with backing from Mr Sharpton.

The preacher, who has never himself won elected office, was more interested in his own political future and particularly his dream of succeeding George Bush in the White House.

Aides said he would travel to Washington today to announce the creation of an exploratory committee for a putative 2004 presidential run.

The only certain thing is that his weeks in prison did no harm to his political profile.

Mr Sharpton, 47, was one of a handful of New York political figures arrested for trespassing on a US Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques on 1 May. He was protesting at war games still taking place on the island.

"They thought they had us locked down," he told about 600 of his supporters on Saturday. "They didn't know they can't lock us out."

Confirming his presidential hopes, he added: "I am prepared to do nationally what I have done locally, which is to help those who need help."

Mr Sharpton, who celebrated his release and lighter frame by dancing at the Cotton Club, would face an uphill struggle trying for the White House.

His more realistic aim is to supplant the Rev Jesse Jackson as the accepted spokesman for African Americans on the national stage. Mr Jackson's standing was hurt last year by revelations that he has fathered an illegitimate child.

Mr Sharpton refused to be drawn on who he would favour among the Democrats in New York, saying he intended to meet the different candidates later this week.

"I will certainly make up my mind before Labour Day," he said, referring to the national holiday that falls at the beginning of September.

Whichever candidate wins, they are likely to face Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, on polling day in November.

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