By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
The eventual nominee could win without the South, but some doubt the strategy.
COLUMBIA, S.C. - The late political icon Strom Thurmond looks purposeful, standing 9 feet tall in bronze outside the South Carolina state capitol. His back is turned squarely against the north.
Two days before the first Southern Democratic presidential primary, many are wondering whether the Democratic Party will turn its back on Strom Thurmond country and the rest of the South as it takes on President Bush.
And some people think that's exactly what the Democrats must do to win.
"Everybody always makes the same mistake of looking South," Democratic front-runner John Kerry told a crowd in New Hampshire on Jan. 24, days before he turned his attention to the South Carolina primary. "Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own."
The Massachusetts senator soon backpedaled, explaining that he was speaking of the electoral math - Gore would have been president if he had won New Hampshire - and not his own strategy. But having made the same statement repeatedly over the past year, he has stoked widespread speculation that he would write off Dixie if he wins the nomination.
Privately, some Democratic strategists say that makes sense.
With most of the South solidly Republican, why squander limited resources on states where Democrats have little chance? Better, they say, to focus on the real battleground states in the Midwest and Southwest.
Of the 11 states of the old Confederacy only two - Florida and Gore's home state of Tennessee - were close in 2000. Bush won the rest by margins ranging from 6 percent to 21 percent.
"The South is no longer America's swing region. It is increasingly inhospitable to Democrats, and Democrats refuse to look at that at their own peril," said University of Maryland political scientist Thomas Schaller. "Going after these states for nostalgic purposes or to satisfy the party establishment leaders in the South is no way to win."
Such talk has been heresy in modern presidential politics. After all, no Democrat has won the White House without winning at least some Southern states. The last three Democratic presidents came from Dixie: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson.
"It's an enormous mistake for us to ignore the South," said North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whose appeal is based in large part on his ability to compete in the South. "No Democrat has ever been elected president without winning at least five Southern states. There's a huge block of electoral votes in the South. It's wrong electorally. More important, it's wrong because we as Democrats are about expanding the party, bringing people into the party."
Seven states hold caucuses and primaries Tuesday, and South Carolina is seen as a crucial gauge of electoral strength because it's the first Southern contest and has a large African-American electorate. Polls point to a close race between Kerry and Edwards, a South Carolina native whose campaign may be doomed if he loses the state. With limited time and money and so many states in play, other candidates have been spending time in states such as Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the onetime front-runner who now faces the prospect of not winning a single state Tuesday, is concentrating on later February contests to keep his campaign afloat. But Dean has been a vocal advocate for Democrats competing in the South, at one point angering people for saying he wanted to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks."
His point was that Democrats can reach Southern voters if they focus on pocketbook issues, instead of controversial social issues. For the first time since the Depression, South Carolina has lost jobs three years in a row, including more than 80,000 manufacturing jobs, and economic concerns are widespread.
"I am tired of coming to the South and fighting elections based on God, guns and gays. We're going to fight this election on our turf, which is going to be jobs, education and health care," Dean has said.
But part of the reason Democrats have been steadily losing the South over the past three decades is the perception that Democrats are out of step with conservative Southern values.
The Southern challenge for Democrats, said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, is that values often trump economics.
"You'd think, given the loss of jobs, if the Democrats couldn't do well this year in the South, what year could they ever do well?" Black said. "Still, on the cultural issues the Democrats are so far apart from the values of the voters."
Today, the most competitive Southern state is the least Southern: Florida, with its heavy concentration of transplants from the Midwest and Northeast. Most analysts believe Florida and, less likely, Louisiana, Tennessee or Arkansas are the only Southern states with Democratic potential.
Black suspects Kerry would write off the South in the general election and acknowledges the electoral math would work if the Democrats pick up a handful of other states such as Ohio, Missouri or Arizona.
"It's a risky strategy," Black said.
Sam Tanenbaum, a South Carolina Democratic activist, said the party must also consider congressional and other races.
"You have down ballot candidates, and if you're going to be head of the party you need to be able to help those candidates," he said.
As a patrician Northeasterner who was Michael Dukakis' lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, Kerry faces strong skepticism from Southern voters. But prominent Southern supporters such as South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland say his background as a Vietnam war hero and former prosecutor will insulate him from the "Massachusetts liberal" label.
Kerry, repeatedly questioned lately for saying he doesn't need to win in the South, says he plans to compete in Dixie. Should he win the nomination, Kerry's running mate selection could be a signal of his Southern strategy. Choosing Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt or Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack would point to a Midwestern strategy, while Florida Sen. Bob Graham or North Carolina Sen. Edwards would show the South will be more than a flyover region.
"Depending on what kind of ticket I put together, I can strengthen my ability to talk to the South," Kerry on Friday told the editorial board of the State, South Carolina's biggest newspaper. "I haven't ventured into running mates at all. I don't want to go there. But there are possibilities of how you do things. Jack Kennedy went with Lyndon Johnson, so there's precedent."
- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.com