WASHINGTON – Red states, blue states, a smattering of purple in between — none of the color boundaries seem to matter these days to the leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
Tailoring message and strategy matters a great deal in terms of how individual campaigns and parties approach different regions of the country ahead of the 2008 primary season, say political analysts on both sides of the aisle, but the current mood among voters is making it easier for candidates once dubbed unelectable in some areas to make forays into once-unfriendly territories.
For instance, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, once deemed unwelcome in certain parts of the country, is not only winning nearly every statewide poll of Democratic primary favorites, but also is holding her own in several head-to-head match-ups with Republicans.
The notion that Clinton can't play in the south is "just silly," says Matt Towery, who runs the Georgia-based InsidersAdvantage polling company. He said he believes this year Clinton and other Democrats have a real chance to sway voters in reddish-hued places like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, all which have the propensity to shift Democratic depending on the election.
"(Clinton's) numbers are consistent," Towery said. "We did a (Democratic) poll in Alabama last week and Clinton was just blowing everyone away."
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, though trailing behind Clinton in most of those polls, is nevertheless doing better than her when pitted against Republican frontrunners — even beating them in some surveys.
John Edwards is winning in Iowa Democratic polls, though still trails behind Clinton and Obama in other places, but the former North Carolina senator is doing better than both when put up against Republican frontrunners former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"I actually think Edwards has a chance on the Democratic side," said Erick Erickson, editor of a popular political Web log, RedState.com.
Analysts agree that ideologically speaking, the country is as divided as it was four years ago. But voters in less red states like Colorado, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia have been increasingly disenchanted with the status quo and are looking for a candidate who can promise change.
"Out there is a president with a very low popularity rating. It doesn't mean that any one state has become more Democratic or more Republican, but there is a Democratic edge no matter where you go," said Byron Shafer, head of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Shafer and others say that like the 2006 midterm congressional election, the war in Iraq, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and Republicans’ ebbing popularity have padded the way for Democrats.
But not everyone agrees, particularly when it comes to the general election when red and blue state values become much more stark than in hypothetical match-ups. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will have a hard time convincing voters in red states to pull the lever.
"The average American voter is more red than blue," Erickson said, adding that Clinton's trying "to position herself to the right on issues like the war and to some degree social issues," demonstrates that "Democrats recognize that we are still a conservative nation by and large … it's what's going to attract voters to a candidate."
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agrees. The Democratic frontrunners are all running races with "broad based appeal," and not catering too hard to the more liberal base of the party, she said. "Nobody on the Democratic side seems to be running a highly-polarized campaign."
Still, Carl Klarner, professor of political science at Indiana State University, doubts Clinton's ability to win over the hearts and minds of conservative red staters, and points to polls that show her trailing Obama and Edwards in hypothetical match-ups with Republicans.
"Yes, there is concern she can't win the general election," Klarner said.
Republicans in a Red State-Blue State World
President Bush won the last two elections based, in part, by leaning hard on conservative activists in red states, and even winning over two formerly blue states — New Mexico and Iowa — in 2004. Those two states are in play in 2008, along with other potentially purple states that have recently elected Democrats to federal and statewide offices.
"They could easily go Democrat," said Towery.
That's why Republicans may be more interested in promoting a more moderate image, one that does not strongly identify with the politics and policy of the Bush administration and harkens further back, to the Reagan administration, which appealed to voters of all stripes.
"Other than say, a South Carolina red state … most Republicans are dissatisfied with the current administration. Having to defend the current administration is off the board," said Towery. "That gives (candidates) the freedom to be creative and independent. Embracing what it means to be 'Reaganesque.'"
But this also poses a challenge for today's Republican frontrunners. Giuliani, who tops the field in several key states in recent polling. and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are from deep blue states, and McCain is from Arizona, a red state with an independent streak and a Democratic governor.
"(None) of them you would confuse with the incumbent," Shafer said of the frontrunners. But it will be more difficult, he said, to get through the gauntlet of the more socially conservative, ideological base that decides on the party nominee.
"It's a tricky road to follow," said Shafer. "They need to mobilize the core of the party. On the other hand, their current advantage is they escape the current problems of the party nationwide. You're having to simultaneously attract the base and not look like the party of the moment."
Erickson said Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who hasn't even declared his candidacy yet, are in good general election positions because "they don't scare a lot of liberals terribly."
Thompson, in particular, Erickson added, is "a plain spoken conservative from the South. His positions appeal very well to conservatives, but also to the libertarian-inclined western and Midwestern voters."
Red State Veep?
While no one appears to represent the red state voting bloc on the Democratic dais, analysts say whoever wins the Democratic nomination will likely pick a candidate who can appeal to the red crowd in the general election.
Lake said someone like former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat with a record of winning in a red state and who was once considered a potential player for the Democratic presidential nomination, may reappear as a vice presidential candidate.
"You may see the Warners of this world, and others, be the leading V.P. candidates," she said.
On the Republican side, said Towery, candidates are going to have to rethink eight years of strategy, where firing up the base brought out enough votes to tip the scales in Bush's favor.
"A lot of the things that worked in the past, are not going to help this time," he said. "Republican voters are looking for new ideas, something fresh to get them out of the same chase-your-tail circumstances they're in now."