How Democrats plan to win Dixie

Bob Etheridge in North Carolina typifies 'local-knowledge' strategy to retake South.

If you want to meet Bob Etheridge, just find a spot alongside any tobacco field or sweet potato patch in this part of North Carolina and wait. He'll be along soon.

This summer, the North Carolina Democrat has been all over the state's sprawling Second District, which wraps around one of the most dynamic high-tech areas in the country, the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle.

It's also the territory of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms, where conservative "Jesse-crats" spotted George Bush 11 points over Al Gore in 2000. Not a safe place for a Democrat, the pundits said.

But Mr. Etheridge, the son of a sharecropper, isn't about to get tagged as another Ted Kennedy liberal who is out of touch with how real North Carolinians think. His success in winning votes here is writing the book on how Democrats hope to take back the South: by finding candidates that fit their districts and can build a message from the ground up.

"Bob Etheridge knows his district back and forth, and that helps him counteract the perception people have of the national party," says Scott Falmlen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

After 30 years of losing ground in a region they dominated for more than a century, Democrats are beginning to battle their way back - and nowhere more effectively than in North Carolina.

Until 1960, Republicans barely registered among top office holders in the South. The GOP had elected no US senators, no governors, and only two congressmen. That changed with Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, which dubbed Democrats the party of "acid, amnesty, and abortion" and won him every Southern state.

It also set the ideological tone for a GOP conquest of statehouses and congressional delegations that turned many Southern states into GOP bastions. In the 1994 elections, North Carolina Democrats lost majorities in the state's House of Representatives, as well as its congressional delegation, for the first time in 100 years.

It took Democrats some time to take stock of the scope of this loss. Now, as they aim to retake Congress, the South is a key flank to guard.

"Below the presidential level, we've been almost resurging. That's the result of the quality of our candidates," says Mac McCorkle, a leading Democratic strategist in North Carolina.

Since the 1994 debacle, Democrats have won back a Senate seat as well as control of both houses of the General Assembly, which will redraw the political map of the state in redistricting this fall.

That process should give Democrats more of an edge, but it's no guarantee of victory, unless the candidate and the message fit the district, analysts say.

"We may think we're drawing a district that may be inclined more Republican or Democratic, but it's the voters who get to decide," says state Sen. Brad Miller (D), chair of the senate committee that is redrawing the districts.

Here, as in many other southern states, Democrats are developing a message they hope will appeal to both cultural conservatives of the Old South and the dynamic and diverse newcomers who are flooding into the state.

For Congressman Etheridge and other North Carolina Democrats, that message is education. A former state superintendent of schools, Etheridge always wears a key on his lapel, just under his member of Congress pin. It means that education is "key to the future," he says. He never ends a talk to any group in the district without referring to it.

And when he talks to constituents about education, it's not in the script of a policy wonk. What makes education an issue that unites people across his diverse district is that it's about hope. It's about moving up in the world, and it's deeply personal.

His message is the same, whether talking to businessmen or tobacco farmers worried about when the buyout check is coming: The key to the future is learning. Raised in deep rural North Carolina, he recalls watching the first electric poles go up in the late 1950s, getting up at 3 a.m. to milk the cow, and haul tobacco out of the barn, working two jobs for two years to pay for the first semester at a local junior college, and then fighting for a basketball scholarship to stay there.

It's an experience that he shares with lifelong constituents, as well as newcomers to the district, whether migrant laborers hoping to settle down in a construction or service job, or high-tech workers in the Research Triangle. In recent years, his district has become the second largest pharmaceutical area in the country.

People, meanwhile, have flocked to the state. Population rose 12 percent in the 1980s and 22 percent in the 1990s. And most of these new residents come to the state without a strong party ties.

Independent is at the "top" of the preference list for newcomers, says Harrison Hickman, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who works with North Carolina candidates.

"Instead of a realignment, it's more of a dealignment. In a lot of elections, either party will be able to win," Mr. Hickman says. "There's no question Democrats can win ... but it all depends on who the candidates are."

Democrats are looking for candidates with enough deep local roots to offset the negative associations many conservatives still have with the national Democratic Party.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, for example, describes herself as "a farm girl who has a high-tech job."

She announced her candidacy for US Senate even before Mr. Helms announced his retirement last week. Ms. Marshall has an impressive track record, having beaten NASCAR racing legend and GOP candidate Richard Petty in her 1996 state race. Like Etheridge, she constantly emphasizes the importance of education and high expectations.

One of the wild cards in the region is how a rapidly growing Hispanic population will settle into political life. Both parties are beginning to court this state's 6 percent Hispanic population. In recent months, both Republicans and Democrats have organized political clubs for Hispanics, and state Democrats are about to vote on making Hispanics a part of party leadership.

Democrats say Hispanic voters will respond to their focus on education, immigration, and ensuring access to government services. Party volunteer and bank manager Tanya Riemer works with new Hispanic residents to help them understand financial services.

"Hispanic candidates? I definitely see it very soon," she says.

But this is ground Republicans are not prepared to concede.

"From the standpoint of issues, we feel we can connect with the Hispanic population, especially with George Bush in the White House," says state Republican chairman Bill Cobey. "We're feeling very upbeat."

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