WASHINGTON – Decorated war veteran or not, Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry (search) faces a daunting task if he looks South for success against President Bush next fall, according to strategists in his own party.
At the same time, some Democrats fret that apart from fighting for Florida, the man from Massachusetts will quickly write off the region, reducing his maneuvering room if the race turns close.
"I think it still has to be considered part of the Bush base," said Jim Duffy (search), a Democratic consultant with long experience in Southern campaigns. While there may be one or two states where Kerry may be able to compete, he added, "It is overwhelmingly Republican and I think probably will stay that way."
Kerry has not yet locked up the Democratic nomination and faces continuing opposition from Sen. John Edwards (search) and Howard Dean (search). But he has won 12 of 14 primaries and caucuses to date, most recently in Virginia and Tennessee, and aides have begun turning their attention to the fall campaign.
"The economic troubles that the country faces are true in every region of the country, including the South," said Michael Meehan, a senior campaign strategist. "And the voters who have voted so far have shown that they have supported Kerry, who's been talking about returning the jobs lost, keeping health care down costs and keeping middle-class taxes down."
Many Southern states have turned strongly Republican in recent presidential elections, with white voters drawn to a GOP call for economic and cultural conservatism and a strong national defense.
Additionally, racial politics have already roiled the race.
Bush bypassed the Senate this year to name Charles Pickering of Mississippi to a vacancy on the federal appeals court. That drew the support of conservatives, but Democrats accused the president of insensitivity to national civil rights groups who strongly opposed the appointment.
Yet Dean came under pressure from fellow Democrats — and later apologized — after saying the party must court Southern voters who display the Confederate flag in their pickup trucks.
Bush won all 11 states of the Confederacy in 2000, as well as Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Together, they accounted for 179 electoral votes.
This time, as the result of adjustments made for the 2000 census, those states account for 185 electoral votes. The group includes Missouri, with 11 electoral votes, a traditional battleground state that both campaigns intend to target this fall.
Several strategists pointed to Arkansas, Louisiana and possibly Tennessee as places where Kerry may look for opportunity in the South outside Florida, the state whose recount decided the 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore.
Kerry should fare "better than we would expect largely because of the economic weakness," said Doug Schoen, who was one of President Clinton's pollsters.
One veteran of Democratic campaigns, Dane Strother, said Kerry should pick a running mate from the region. "He ought to get a Southerner, get someone who understands the language. ... John Edwards has really shined," he said.
"You can't write off the South, you're not only writing off a geographic region, you're writing off a demographic group," he said.
Other Democrats, calculating that the race will be won or lost in the industrial Midwest, counter that Kerry needs a running mate from that part of the country, possibly former presidential rival Dick Gephardt.
Kerry's record in southern primaries has been mixed. He lost to Edwards in South Carolina last week, but rebounded Tuesday night to win Virginia and Tennessee.
Still, exit polls in both states point to considerable challenges in the fall. In Virginia, Kerry won 46 percent of the white primary vote, and gained 61 percent of ballots cast by blacks. Yet blacks account for a far larger proportion of the electorate in a primary than a general election. The same survey indicated that the black vote accounted for 33 percent of the total on Tuesday — twice as high as the 16 percent in the 2000 general election.
In Tennessee, Kerry won 47 percent of the black vote but only 40 percent of the white vote. Blacks accounted for 23 percent of the votes cast in the primary, higher than 18 percent in the 2000 general election.
While numerous Democrats interviewed agreed that Kerry faces problems in the South, some said his record as a decorated war veteran could help.
"His profile as a Vietnam veteran allows Democrats to talk more about economic issues, health care and budget deficit issues rather than feel like we have a deficit on national security and foreign policy," said David Dixon, a Democratic strategist.
At the same time, Republican strategists have made clear they intend to depict Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal whose votes on taxes, national security and more place him outside the mainstream.
Apart from Republicans, recent polling underscores the differences between Democrats in the South and elsewhere.
"The biggest area of regional disagreement is on cultural matters, homosexuality, immigration and — especially among white Democrats — race," the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said in a report on a poll taken in January.
The survey reported that Southern Democrats oppose gay marriage — an emerging campaign issue — by a margin of 65-26. Among Democrats outside the region, 51 percent favor and 42 percent oppose.
The same survey found that southern Democrats take a dimmer view of government regulation than Democrats in the rest of the country, and view religion as more important.
"Southern white Democrats are more likely to say the country has gone too far pushing equal rights" between the races, the survey also found.