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The Rev. Al Sharpton's latest crusade

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"You've got the kind of decadent self aggrandizement - me, me, me," he says of the gangsta culture. "I don't think you can go to these campuses and deal with social issues without confronting their being told, 'Just be a thug, just be a hood, just be a gangster.' So it may be cultural and political, but it's one and the same."

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Political fault lines

Always a lightning rod in racial politics, Sharpton in this race has been at once dismissed as a completely improbable candidate and applauded as refreshing relief - in both white and minority communities. His quick wit and Revivalist delivery have won him plaudits in debates. ("Don't get confused, they're the Christian Right, but we're the right Christians.")

His attack on rival Howard Dean for his statement that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" won Sharpton gratitude among blacks for whom the flag is a symbol of repression, and also among some white leaders stunned at Dean's lack of sensitivity.

But the state of Sharpton's campaign - small, disorganized, and lacking a war chest - has caused even some followers to question whether he's running for real or for his own ego gratification. Sources say his first campaign manager, Frank Watkins, who is widely respected in political circles, left because he felt Sharpton wasn't committed to running the kind of campaign (read: raising money) that was necessary to make an impact like Jesse Jackson, Sr. did in the 1980s. A week after Mr. Watkins left, Jesse Jackson Jr., for whom Watkins used to work, endorsed Dean. ("I won't discuss Congressman Jackson!" Sharpton says - even before the question is half asked.)

And then there's the Sharpton baggage. He's the only candidate who's been indicted for tax evasion and fraud, then acquitted; who's been taped by the FBI in an alleged drug deal; and who's been stabbed for leading a protest in a predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some dismiss him even before he opens his mouth.

"Sharpton is not going to be as successful as Jesse Jackson was," says David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Politics and Economics in Washington. "The fact is that he's not as widely known or popular a figure among African- Americans as Jesse was. When Jesse ran [for president], his favorables were 90/10 [favorable/unfavorable] among African-Americans. Sharpton's at 42/29."

Sharpton's unique internal beat

Since Sharpton was 3, donning his mother's bathrobe as vestments and lining up his sister's dolls as a congregation, he has stepped to his own beat. When he was 4, he preached his first sermon from John 14: "Let not your heart be troubled. Ye who believe in God also believe in me." By the time Sharpton was 9, he was ordained a minister by the Pentecostal church. He was a local Brooklyn celebrity, the boy preacher.

Then at 10, his life was shattered. His father, a local landlord ("slumlord," Sharpton calls him) was forced to leave the family after getting Sharpton's older half-sister pregnant. The family went from middle class comfort to the projects.

His mother, who'd gone from housewife to domestic help, looked to the church to help her son. And Sharpton's status as a minicelebrity brought him a string of impressive and disparate mentors, from gospel great Mahalia Jackson, to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Sr., to the 'Godfather of Soul,' James Brown. They have all influenced and helped create Sharpton's character, which has been described as intense and inflexible, strong and stubborn.

"It's just not in my personality construct to worry about other's reactions," Sharpton says. "It's kind of hard, when you've been marching to your own drummer all your life, to start listening to other beats now."

Exploiter or crusader for justice?

"The Rev," as he's known among his staff, has always been a polarizing figure. The self-declared champion of the downtrodden has been perceived by many as a self-promoting race baiter who exploited the suffering of others for a spot in the klieg lights.