Southerners Say Democrats Can't Write Off Their Vote

Being a Southern-state delegate to the Democratic National Convention (search) carries with it the unique burden of combating what seems to be conventional wisdom even among Democrats: John Kerry (search) can't possibly win a race in "Bush country" in 2004.

"Red state" delegates say it's not an easy argument to fight, but they are sure trying.

The Alabama Democrats who gathered for a breakfast reception Wednesday were a gregarious bunch united in their anger against President Bush (search). Despite their thick Southern accents that most inside-the-Beltway types would peg as conservative from one of the red-designated states that voted Republican in 2000, these Southern beaus and belles said Bush has let down the entire region.

Betty Green of Town Creek said the president has angered people into mobilization in her state.

"He has been the best thing for our party," she said with a laugh. "The things he's done for our country, sending our boys off to war to get killed. People are now saying, we've got the wrong one."

The "right one" in this case, would presumably have been Al Gore, who lost to Bush in every Southern state in the union in 2000, even his homestate of Tennessee. His one-time boss, former President Bill Clinton, also Southern-bred, won a few Southern states in his two successful elections.

The Alabama delegates, who know they are considered to be from the deepest part of the South, are optimistic that Kerry will follow in the latter's shoes in November.

"I think it's doable," said John Saxon, an attorney from Birmingham who worked with the Clinton campaigns in Alabama. "The safe money right now would probably be against [Kerry] carrying the South, but that may be proved wrong. The level of intensity among Alabama voters is very strong."

Kerry's not-so-secret weapon in the South, of course, is running mate John Edwards, the upbeat North Carolina senator who is running on his working class background and optimistic message of lifting folks up from their burdened, uncertain lives.

Ted Hosp, a Kerry campaign coordinator in Alabama, said the Edwards' pick is proof that the Massachusetts senator isn't just writing off the South and concentrating instead on beating Bush in key battleground states in the Midwest.

"I think the choice of John Edwards is a clear indication that he is not doing that," he said.

North Carolinian Ed Turlington, who managed Edwards’ presidential campaign, praised the Kerry campaign for its thinking.

"The emphasis Kerry-Edwards is putting on the South is a recognition that we need different math than we did in 2000,” Turlington said. “Kerry-Edwards is running a different campaign than I’ve seen in years.” He cited the fact that the campaign hired local leaders rather than relying on outside operatives.

Southern Democrats, who trend conservative, particularly on social issues like abortion, say voters have plenty of common ground with the Kerry team, which spends a good deal of its time trying to shake off the moniker that Kerry is just a liberal New Englander.

Cullman, Ala., native Brad Williams, 20, said Republicans are trying to keep the focus on Kerry's image rather than his message because they know Southerners will wander into the Kerry-Edwards team over issues like the economy and Iraq.

"They are trying to make this about fringe issues," he said. "We need to talk about the bread and butter issues that matter," like prescription drugs and fixing Social Security.

"If Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards will work the South, they will do very well there," Williams said.

Ron Sparks, Alabama's commissioner of agriculture, told that Alabamans have plenty to complain about outside the realm of ideological or social feuds.

"We've lost over 10,000 jobs and we have lost our agriculture to foreign countries," Sparks said. "It disturbs me when Bush says it helps our economy to outsource jobs – I don't buy that."

Some have even suggested that conservatives in Southern states — those who supported and voted for Bush — are so disenchanted about his policies, particularly regarding deficits, expanded government and the war in Iraq, that they might just not vote on Nov. 2.

"They're angry. They may not vote for Kerry, but they might just stay home," said Saxon. "They are looking at these unprecedented deficits and think he lied to us about the war. We have a lot of Alabama men and women over there."

That leaves Democrats with the task of aggressively getting out their own vote, which polls suggest could be an uphill battle.

A July poll in Louisiana conducted by Market Research Insight (search) found Bush leading Kerry 52 to 36 percent in the state. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll taken around the same time found that likely voters in North Carolina preferred the Bush-Cheney ticket to the Kerry-Edwards 54 to 39 percent. Among registered voters in that state, a separate Mason Dixon poll found the race closer among registered voters, 48 percent for Bush-Cheney to 45 percent for Kerry-Edwards.

One bright spot, however, may be found in Florida, where a Research 2000 poll released July 20 for the Florida Times-Union and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found Kerry leading Bush 49 percent to 44 percent. But a Mason Dixon poll taken about the same time found Bush leading Kerry 48 percent to 46 percent, suggesting that the Sunshine State could be the most competitive in the South in 2004.