BOSTON – When South Carolina Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search) entered national politics in 1966, Southern Democrats owned the "Solid South" and politicians with presidential aspirations rushed to Dixie to offer star power that helped local Democrats get elected.
But over the past three decades, most Democratic presidential wannabes — mostly from the North — have been as welcome by their party brethren down South as a statue of General Sherman (search) in Atlanta.
"We've sort of gone in and out," conceded Hollings, who concludes a 38-year Senate career in January. But Southern Democrats insist the winds are changing with the presidential ticket of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search).
The pairing of Kerry, a hunter and Vietnam war hero, and Edwards, a Southerner with Bill Clinton-like charm, will help Southern Democrats despite conventional wisdom that local Democrats must run away from the national party, they say.
"We have had a lot of national Democrats that local Democrats didn't want to be associated with over the years," acknowledged Susan Scweker of Richmond, Va., chair of the Democratic National Committee's Southern Caucus at the Democratic National Convention.
But "we don't have that problem this time," she insisted.
Not everyone agrees.
Inez Tenenbaum, the Democrat vying to replace Hollings, left the convention and returned to South Carolina before Kerry or Edwards arrived. North Carolina Senate candidate Erskine Bowles, who wants to succeed Edwards, also made only a brief appearance in Boston.
"Kerry is a northern liberal, and that doesn't play well down in the South with conservative and moderate white voters that Southern Democrats need to win statewide elections," said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor who specializes in Southern politics.
A Democrat in the South needs roughly 40 percent of the white vote and a heavy black turnout to succeed, according to a formula cited by some political analysts.
"I don't think you're going to find any Southern Democrats thirsty for John Kerry to come campaign for them," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "But I think you will see John Edwards play a part in the campaigns they need to win in the South."
Some Southern Democrats see wisdom in local candidates who shun the convention.
"It's just smart," said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, of Tenenbaum's decision to leave Boston. "She's doing what she has to do to get elected in a Southern state."
Hollings, as blunt and outspoken as ever at 82, said Democrats need to get back to grass-roots politics — the door-to-door handshakes and politicking he grew up on and later used to stay in office as South Carolina trended Republican.
"Cut all this canned television stuff. All the candidates are overconsulted, they're overpolled," Hollings said. "Everybody in Washington is 'concerned.' Everybody in Columbia (S.C.) is 'troubled.' Nobody has done a goddamn thing. You can't get them to do anything, you can't get them to take a position. Say what you think, because the people are. They'll get rid of all of us. That's why they'll like Kerry. He speaks his mind."
Democrats say the Kerry-Edwards plan to fight for states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia will help local Democratic candidates. For example, Democrats included support for "Americans' Second Amendment right to own firearms" in their convention platform for the first time in history.
"We're in constant contact with a lot of elected officials in the South, and you're going to see John Kerry and John Edwards appear with them," Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's deputy campaign manager, promised at a political briefing on the South.
There are some important races in the South, with five seats up for grabs in the closely divided Senate. Besides Hollings and Edwards, John Breaux of Louisiana, Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia are also leaving the Senate.