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Waiting on Bill.

It's the election-eve waiting game that looks for Bill Clinton to reach out to embrace African-Americans. It's supposed to happen any day now, just as soon as he gets the white middle-class vote "solidified."

It's the Clinton watch by blacks who loathe George Bush and don't trust Ross Perot -- but still might stay home rather than vote for a Democrat who keeps them at arm's length. So they wait. Surely now that he's survived the debates with his lead intact, the overtures will come.

It would be nice -- were it affordable -- to be able to demand such courting. If it doesn't come, just skip the election and don't worry about the next four years. That'll teach the Democrats.

But there are two things wrong with that picture. First, given the shallowness of Clinton's support -- despite the poll numbers -- the middle-class white vote won't be solidified until the day after the election. That makes the vigil pointless.

More important, waiting for Clinton to reach out specifically to blacks doesn't just ignore his tactical problems. It ignores the fact that African-Americans have a personal stake in this election whether Clinton gives them a signal or not.

Waiting for Clinton to say the right word presupposes the Arkansas governor really does have an insight into the special problems blacks as a group still face, and an inner commitment to dealing with them.

Maybe he does; maybe he doesn't. His golf outing at an all-white country club was not overly encouraging. On the other hand, his good relationship with Arkansas blacks who know him best points in a more hopeful direction.

But it's not necessary to try to decipher his hidden feelings. To wait for an engraved invitation to the voting booth disregards the fact that blacks have a direct stake not just in affirmative action or civil rights, but in every program enacted by government.

From job training to infrastructure development, from educational reform to deficit-reduction specifics, blacks will be directly affected -- in fact, more affected than most -- by whatever comes out of the White House.

There are fundamental differences between George Bush and Bill Clinton on such issues and, in fact, in their basic approach to government. Those differences make this too important an election to sit out. To recall an old maxim, when America catches a cold, black America still gets pneumonia. As long as that's true, African-Americans had better have a hand in picking the doctor.

That's the bottom line that overshadows the Democrats' arm's-length strategy. It makes waiting for Clinton to pledge special allegiance to a minority that could hand him -- or, by strategists' calculations, cost him -- the election simply a fantasy exercise blacks cannot afford.

The Democratic Party this year has become like the owner of the bungling baseball team who, when faced with contract demands from his star player, told the athlete to take a hike. His rationale was simple: "We finished last with him; we can finish last without him."

That's the reality for a party whose recent presidential aspirants have finished second, even with the black vote. Is it any wonder then that Clinton isn't touting his reparations program? Black voters have to be similarly pragmatic.

Some African-American leaders periodically talk about forming a black political party that could barter, be a true balance of power and push both parties. But it has always been talk. The time to start that undertaking is the day after an election, not the month before it. And not in an election with the stakes so high.

A large part of political strategy is imitating success. If Clinton wins by pulling the left-leaning Democratic Party toward the middle, it's a good bet Republicans will move closer to the middle in subsequent elections.

With the differences reduced, the threat to African-Americans should the wrong person win would diminish as well. That's the time to assert a black agenda with the threat of sitting out an election or wasting votes on third-party candidates. Right now the risk is just too great.

Granted, African-Americans will not -- and should not -- vote for someone who insults them. But Clinton has not done that, no matter what Jesse Jackson or Sister Souljah might say. He has simply treated African-Americans as he has most other Americans. It was a shrewd decision, based not on emotion, loyalty or some other mushy sentiment, but on calculated self-interest.

It is the same way African-Americans have to decide what to do on Nov. 3.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer. In his weekly columns, he will express his own opinions, which are not necessarily the opinions of The News.

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