Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Hope Springs Down South

Once seen as a lost cause for generations to come, the South is showing signs of hope for Democratic senate candidates.

Not so long ago, the South provided a bleak landscape for Democrats. Struggling to recover from devastating defeats in the 2002 off-year elections, the party saw five of its incumbent senators announce their retirements — John B. Breaux in Louisiana, John Edwards in North Carolina, Ernest F. Hollings in South Carolina, Zell Miller in Georgia and Bob Graham in Florida.

Because President Bush won all five states in 2000, Republicans saw the vacancies as fertile ground for solidifying control of the Senate.

But now, some of those election contests are shaping up as unexpectedly spirited. With a sluggish regional economy, continued bloodshed in Iraq and a certain distance from their own party, Southern Democrats say they sense political daylight — and a slim possibility of recapturing the Senate.

Independent experts say there is more to the Democratic claims than election year spin.

“I think the Democrats are going to end up winning a few of these races,” said Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication. “The president will certainly win in the South, but he’s not going to be the asset for other Republican candidates that you might normally expect.”

The stakes are high and extend well beyond the South. Citing Mr. Bush’s declining approval rating, Democrats have begun to talk openly about the possibility — slim though it may be — of the party’s recapturing one or both houses of Congress in November. In the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 51 to 48 (there is one independent), even one or two victories in the South would be a major step toward that goal, giving the Democrats a cushion if they lose elsewhere.

“I think the Democrats are turning out to have a legitimate shot of winning back control of the Senate, maybe a 30 percent to 40 percent chance, and the South is going to be huge in that effort,” Mr. Cook said.


Nonsense, Republican strategists respond, the Democrats are just whistling Dixie.

“This is like Custer’s Last Stand for them,” the Republican chairman in South Carolina, Katon Dawson, said. “Look at how they’re running from their nominee. I mean, their candidates in the South are just absolutely getting on a bus and running away from John Kerry. Meanwhile, we’re hugging George Bush. ”

The Republican candidate for Senate in North Carolina, Representative Richard M. Burr, put it this way, “I think Democrats are desperate to find a state or a region where they can say, “Look here, people have missed it, but we really are competitive.’ ”


Democratic strategists acknowledge that the odds remain against them in most of these Southern contests, and they are compensating by emphasizing their independence.

“I don’t think my ideas are Republican ideas and I don’t think they’re Democratic ideas,” Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, recently told 12 voters at a restaurant. “I just think they’re good ideas.”


In North Carolina, a Mason-Dixon poll of 625 registered voters conducted from May 14 to May 17 found 45 percent favoring Mr. Bowles, 35 percent for Mr. Burr and 20 percent undecided. Republicans shrug off those numbers as a temporary result of Mr. Bowles’s statewide name recognition, a result of his unsuccessful Senate race against Elizabeth Dole in 2002. [New York Times]

The longer the jobs market in the South remains soft and the longer the body bags keep coming back from Iraq, you’re going to see less hugging of George W. Bush and more people – including Republicans – who are going to look to new leadership both at home and in the White House.