''I think the Democratic nomination at this point is really up for grabs. None of the announced candidates has captured the imagination of the party or of people beyond the party. . . . Running for president should not be an enterprise for white males only. The question is, 'Will the party make room for new Democrats?' That's the big challenge.''
The Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson, founder and national president of the Chicago-headquartered Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), sits in his office making use of time in between a morning meeting and an afternoon flight to Georgia. He has been testing the national political waters for himself over the last three months. But he says it will be late August or early September before he decides whether or not to be a 1984 Democratic presidential primary candidate.
In the meantime he strongly favors the idea of a black candidacy.
''A black presidential candidate is important not just for blacks,'' he explains in an interview after leading an emotion-charged Saturday morning meeting (speech, song, and fund raising) of Operation PUSH. He has changed from suit and tie to a cooler, short-sleeved, black shirt and trousers for a flight within the hour to Augusta, Ga. He will spend most of the week on the road in the South trying to register black voters.
Mr. Jackson has just finished a private chat with Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., who heads the exploratory committee of Black Coalition '84, a group that recently endorsed the concept of a black candidacy. Others who want to speak to the Operation PUSH president, including visitors from South Africa and Syria, wait patiently in a line outside his door.
''What is important is that the black experience be a part of the national campaign,'' says Mr. Jackson as he takes an occasional bite from a tray lunch of chicken, corn, and green beans that has been set on his desk. ''That is, the experience of the rejected, the second-class citizen - women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, youth, handicapped people. There's a vast body of . . . people who need their spirits rekindled and their hopes revived. . . . In other words, the boats stuck on the bottom must be lifted. Rising tides don't lift up all the boats.''
Stressing that minorities of all kinds are expected to make up the majority of those attending the San Francisco Democratic convention, he says that fact suggests there is a ''new coalition which must assume a new course with new leadership.''
Indeed, one of the key questions guiding his own decision of whether or not to run is the degree to which minorities are willing to forget their differences and head in a new direction together.
''The three top factors that will be critical in my decision are machinery, masses, and money,'' he says, taking a drink from a glass of fruit punch on his tray. ''By machinery I mean the putting together of a rainbow coalition across regional, racial, and sexual lines, with a technically prepared staff. Secondly, the masses must be interested in going another way - looking for another option. And thirdly, there needs to be the money to adequately run a crusade.''
Also, there are family considerations (''We've not quite checked off on these yet'') and adjustments that would have to be made in the running of Operation PUSH. Though many have urged him to speed up his decision for a better crack at the nomination, he says, ''There are so many things to be considered before this decision is finally made - I reserve the right to take the time to make it.''
If he runs, it will be because he thinks the nomination is winnable. ''A symbolic candidacy would not be worth the time,'' he says. And he doesn't buy the argument that the party will be the weaker for an added candidate.
''It cannot hurt the Democratic Party. A run could not only open up the party for everybody by increasing voter registration and participation. It can also assure us of winning in the general election of '84 because you'd have enough people involved and enough enthusiasm to make a difference. After all, (the late Hubert) Humphrey lost to (Richard M.) Nixon in '68 because of the lack of an enthusiastic vote.''
He says he has no third-party interest. ''I think an independent candidacy would help (President) Reagan get reelected, and I think that's bad.'' But he argues that Democratic leaders have some distance to go in opening up the party to ''new'' Democrats.
''In Chicago if (Mayor) Harold Washington had to depend upon the Democrats to get elected, he wouldn't have made it, and since then his staunchest opposition has come from Democrats. . . . And in the nine Democratic-controlled Southern states where 53 percent of the blacks live, there is not one black congressman - not one - 18 years after the Voting Rights Act. It's the Democratic party that has conspired to use second (run-off) primaries that eliminate blacks from serious consideration in statewide elections and is using gerrymandering, at-large elections, and dual registration to undercut us. These are the new forms of denial that have replaced the grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes. Those nine states are out of line and we must end that blockage.''
In his view, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is the top civil rights issue. And he says he sees little appreciation of that point from the other Democratic candidates.
''Right now the law is almost like an Indian treaty, largely unfulfilled. Its enforcement is the key to progressive politics in this country. Remember in North Carolina Reagan won by only 39,000 votes? There are 505,000 unregistered blacks there. Put another 250,000 of them on the books and not only will blacks go to the House of Representatives, but progressive whites can go to the Senate, and both can go to the White House.''
As he earlier told his Operation PUSH audience in a voice breaking with emotion: ''If the game is played by one set of rules, not only can we survive, we can prevail.''