The next 30 days could be Jesse Jackson's fateful moment in American politics. The Rev. Mr. Jackson, who will march into the Democratic convention with more than 1,200 delegates, can undercut Michael Dukakis, the presumptive nominee - or he can rally his followers behind the Massachusetts governor.
The outcome of the 1988 presidential election could be at stake.
Jackson is being pulled by many forces. He leads a diverse, restless army, eager for recognition and power. They want to overturn the Reagan era with bold new social programs, higher taxes, and cuts in military spending. They also want Jackson on the ticket with Governor Dukakis.
Both Jackson and Mr. Dukakis talk of accommodation, but the situation is tense. A test comes today when platform talks resume in Denver. Jackson aides promise that he will insist on nothing in the platform that could hurt Dukakis's chances against George Bush.
Yet sharp differences remain between Jackson and Dukakis on a wide range of issues. Dukakis differs with Jackson's positions in favor of sharply higher taxes on the wealthy, establishment of a Palestinian state, cutbacks in American support for the defense of Europe, and universal medical care.
Dukakis already has stiff-armed Jackson on the tax issue. But in other areas, such as defense spending, both sides say they are striving to find common language without compromising on their basic positions.
Platform writers hope to complete their work by Sunday.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Georgetown University law professor, is leading the Jackson platform effort. Although Dukakis is unbending in his opposition to a tax increase, she says it already seems clear that on some other issues ``we will be able to get much of our mainline position into the platform itself.''
The defense issue, however, illustrates the difficulty of finding universally acceptable language.
Dukakis favors a buildup of conventional-warfare strength to fight a land war in Europe without reliance on nuclear weapons. Jackson wants to save $150 billion in defense spending in Europe over the next five years by insisting that European nations share more of the cost of their own defense.
``We think this matter is crucial,'' says Mrs. Norton, who spoke at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Thursday. ``We're concerned that the nuclear buildup not be replaced with a conventional buildup. ... The difference ... cannot be ignored.''
But she is optimistic that ``clever drafting'' can come up with a compromise plank that will satisfy both sides.
At the same time, Mrs. Norton issued a thinly veiled threat if Dukakis refuses to cooperate.
``Maybe we won't compromise on this one,'' she says. If the defense spending issue were put to the whole convention, the Jackson position might prevail, she says, because Dukakis delegates won't necessarily stick with the governor on every issue.
``Many of these [Dukakis] people came to him as their second or third choice because their first choice was somebody else,'' so they are not a ``committed phalanx'' for Dukakis, she observes.
Even more explosive could be Jackson's support for an independent Palestinian state, a policy strongly opposed by others as a threat to the security of Israel.
``That is a troublesome issue, and that's one [on which] I will be most looking for accommodation if I can find it,'' Mrs. Norton says.
But Jackson's support for Palestinians has already caused sharp fights to break out at a number of state Democratic conventions, and the issue could tumble onto the floor of the national convention.
One danger: Strong Jackson support for the Palestinians could exacerbate black-Jewish animosity, which first broke out during the Jackson campaign in 1984. Bad feelings resurfaced again this year, especially in the New York primary.
Since black and Jewish voters are the two strongest supporters of the Democratic Party, serious antagonism between them could threaten the core of the party's coalition.
Professor Norton plays down concern that Jackson will ``tear up the convention,'' as some commentators speculate. She explains that Jackson's strategy at the convention will be to look at the larger picture, to tie everything together. Thus, how Dukakis handles the choice of a vice-presidential nominee could influence Jackson's strategy on the platform.
But overall, ``the Jackson approach toward Governor Dukakis has been increasingly collaborationist,'' she says.
Mrs. Norton predicts that Jackson will campaign for the ticket even harder than Dukakis because ``those who support Jesse Jackson need a victory even more.''