The Rev. Jesse Jackson is at a turning point. His entire campaign machine, now well respected in the highest political circles, will soon switch gears. No longer in search of the presidency after tomorrow's closing primaries, Mr. Jackson will turn his impressive political prowess upon the Democratic convention and beyond.
Many of his best operatives have already moved to the convention team, according to campaign sources, where they are busy developing their options for the July convention. There is recent speculation that Jackson will take a strident posture in Atlanta, challenging the Democratic leadership in a number of areas.
Meanwhile, the recent string of primary losses, as well as new polls in California showing Gov. Michael Dukakis with a 2 to 1 lead, have contributed to a lowering of expectations for Jackson in the Tuesday primaries.
``The main opponent [in California] is probably not Mike Dukakis, it's probably inevitability,'' says Jackson campaign manager Gerald Austin. ``We want to win,'' he emphasizes, ``but winning for us is just not delegates, it's popular vote.'' The campaign hopes to beat the 21 percent of the California popular vote which Jackson picked up in 1984.
Many Democratic activists still anguish over exactly what Jackson will want at the convention - and what he will do to get it. Some parts of his message dovetail nicely with the Democratic agenda, like drug abuse and day care. Other parts are considered too liberal at a time when much of the American electorate has become more conservative. These activists worry about Jackson's call for higher taxes on the wealthy, military spending cuts, and a higher price tag for social spending.
Some of this concern was alleviated when Rep. William H. Gray (D) of Pennsylvania, the black chairman of the House Budget Committee, was appointed head of the 15-member committee that will soon begin to prepare a draft platform for the convention. Congressman Gray is close to both Jackson and the Democratic party leadership and is assumed to be prepared to protect the party's interests as well as the Jackson political agenda.
``I do not foresee confrontation,'' Jackson said last week when asked about his convention posture. ``I think we're at a stage of our development now where we can effectively negotiate on mutually respectful terms.'' He then added, ``It's premature to say where areas of difference take place.''
Senior adviser Ann Lewis says Jackson will definitely have a ``strong convention agenda,'' although she and other campaign sources say the specifics have yet to be laid out. In general though, Ms. Lewis says she is ``looking at a Democratic convention in which his leadership ... and his achievements over the last couple of years will be recognized. Look at the issues that Jesse Jackson has pioneered,'' she says. ``You're going to find those in the main document of the Democratic platform.''
At the top of the list will be demands to change winner-take-all primary states like New Jersey, where the delegate count doesn't reflect the popular vote.
``New Jersey is probably an example of the most unfair situation of any state in the country,'' according to Mr. Austin. ``It makes it very difficult for us to win many districts.'' He does not think that challenges of ``unfairness'' in the system should be considered as ``strident'' convention positioning. To party leaders, however, any convention battle during national television coverage is considered a political liability - and should be avoided.
Campaign sources say Jackson will continue to speak in the five weeks before the convention. He is determined to keep his name and his issues in the mainstream of the '88 campaign.
Dukakis and party leaders expect - and need - Jackson to campaign for the Democratic ticket, even if he is not the vice-presidential choice. Jackson advisers agree, but warn that their support will be proportional to the accommodation of Jackson's demands. ``I am sure right now that Jesse Jackson wants to do what he can for the election of the Democratic nominee, but it is much too soon to make a specific commitment,'' Lewis says.
Jackson sparked renewed speculation about his plans for seeking the No. 2 spot on the ticket when he told reporters last week that he had ``earned consideration.''
``I assume that any short list of vice presidential nominees begins with Jesse Jackson,'' says Lewis. Jackson, however, has not said whether he would take the position if offered.