"They tell us you're unpatriotic not to stand up for the war in Iraq, but no," he says, his voice booming. "I think that you're unpatriotic to put our American soldiers at risk if they didn't have to be there in the first place."
But only if time permits. Sharpton is a busy man, crisscrossing the country with a populist campaign that could redefine his public image and mobilize large numbers of minority voters.
Since he burst onto the New York scene in 1985, angrily protesting police brutality and cases of white violence against blacks, Sharpton has been known primarily as a street activist and civil rights leader — an outspoken man who manipulates the media and can turn out large crowds on a few hours' notice.
"Rev," as he's called, has had stellar moments, such as the massive protests he organized against the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man killed outside his Bronx apartment as he reached for his wallet.
He's also had setbacks, none greater than his support for Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who claimed she had been gang-raped by white men. A grand jury declared the case a hoax, and Sharpton — who has never expressed regret — was ordered to pay $65,000 for defaming an assistant district attorney he had accused of being involved in the attack.
Now, Sharpton is promoting himself as a thoughtful presidential candidate, a leader of minorities and other disaffected voices who wants to influence Democratic Party policy. His rhetoric has been toned down, and some observers are startled to see him play the role of a healer during debates.
Like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who failed to win the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, Sharpton says that for him, winning is a relative term. "Of course I'm running to win," he says, hurrying from Etta's Kitchen to the airport for a trip to Chicago. "But it's also about putting together a progressive coalition that will take back the Democratic Party and register a million new voters. It's about electing people to the House, the Senate and other offices."
Few observers believe Sharpton will capture the nomination, let alone beat President Bush. He runs distantly in most polls and has reported raising about $114,000 in a campaign where other Democrats expect to raise millions. Still, Sharpton leads among black voters (24% in a recent Gallup poll), and that's the key to his game plan.
As he campaigned in South Carolina on a recent Sunday — reaching out to blacks, who make up 40% of Democratic primary voters here — Sharpton's new persona was on display. He preached at New Hope Baptist Church, bringing the crowd to its feet as he talked about black self-empowerment.
Shouting in sing-song rhythm, Sharpton unveiled his own version of Saul on the road to Damascus: "When Jesus told him to change his ways, he said: 'I want you to go back to your old crowd! Go to your hangouts! Go to your drug dealers! Go to your hoochie-coochie girls! I want you to be the doctor and raise them all up! I want you to bring them to the light of God!' "
The room exploded with cheers, and minutes later Sharpton was engulfed by well-wishers. This scene will be repeated in churches all over the country, because "no one else in this presidential race can speak as well as Sharpton about drug abuse, the criminal justice system and welfare policy," said Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and prominent black essayist who backs Sharpton's campaign.
To many critics, however, the idea of Sharpton as a candidate, let alone president, is a joke. They dismiss him as a demagogue, and they say his participation will cast a cloud over the Democratic Party, bringing ugly racial issues to the fore and dooming efforts at unity.
Some Bush supporters have gleefully launched a "Republicans for Sharpton" Web site, and conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson on CNN's "Crossfire" have said, with tongue in cheek, that Sharpton is a "great Democrat."
As with other candidates, he has his share of political baggage.
A Newsday investigation revealed that Sharpton played a shadowy role as an FBI informant in drug investigations during the 1980s. He caught heat in 1995 after blasting "white interlopers" in Harlem for evicting a black-owned record store; as anger grew, a man who had participated in Sharpton's protests firebombed the store, causing seven deaths. During the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when black-Jewish tensions erupted in Brooklyn, he offended many by referring derisively to "diamond merchants."
Sharpton, who preaches before many church groups but does not have a permanent congregation, says these controversies pale in comparison with the personal problems facing former President Clinton or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). And he insists that his political career is a work in progress that cannot be easily defined.
From an early age, Sharpton was drawn to the spotlight. He astonished parents and religious leaders by demonstrating a talent for preaching in Brooklyn churches when he was 4, and he was ordained a Pentecostal minister six years later. He also showed a flair for politics, getting involved in community volunteer projects, most notably Jackson's Operation Breadbasket.