Republicans and Democrats may disagree over the national significance of this week's GOP gubernatorial gains in Kentucky and Mississippi.
But on a practical level, the effect of these off-year elections is clear: The Republican Party has further expanded its power base in the South - a region that seems increasingly likely to pose significant challenges for Democrats in 2004.
The Democratic Party's Southern woes have been underscored lately on several fronts: Earlier in the week, Florida Sen. Bob Graham announced that he would not seek reelection next year, creating a fourth open seat in the South for Democrats to defend, and another hurdle as the party tries to take back the Senate.
In addition, the Democratic presidential front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has come under intense fire for commenting that he hoped to appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
While Dr. Dean has defended his statement by explaining he simply meant that his party should reach out to poor Southern whites on economic grounds, he has been attacked as both racist and out of touch with Southern values. Retiring Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (D) - who recently dealt his own blow to his party by endorsing President Bush - commented on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Dean "knows as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday."
Taken together, these events reflect the South's ongoing shift from a solidly Democratic region to one that is not only competitive for Republicans, but seems increasingly hostile to Democrats, with a rift over cultural issues from guns to abortion to affirmative action. Republicans now hold 8 governorships out of the 11 former confederate states.
Yet it's the national implications for Democrats that may be most daunting: In the 2000 election, Al Gore lost the White House in part because he failed to carry a single Southern state, including his native Tennessee. And while this year's nominee could win the presidency without the South, the fast-growing region's increasing number of electoral votes clearly poses a problem for Democrats.
"Democrats have lost white conservative voters across the region ... [and] they're now beginning to lose white moderate voters across the region," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
In many ways, Democrats find themselves increasingly torn between liberal Northeastern and West Coast voters who tend to dominate the party, and Southerners they hope to woo back. Dean has come under fire from Sen. John Kerry for high ratings from the National Rifle Association in his years as governor of Vermont - a position that might boost Dean's profile in the South, but could hurt him elsewhere and in many early primary states.
Likewise, Dean's remark on appealing to voters with confederate flag decals could effectively alienate urban blacks and other liberals, but is unlikely to make inroads among Southern whites. "He's pitching a message to the group least likely to be interested in voting for a Democrat, and even less likely to vote for Howard Dean," says Professor Black.
To be sure, some of the credit for Tuesday's wins in Kentucky and Mississippi may go to Mr. Bush, who made last-minute appearances in both states. Republicans argue that these victories prove the ineffectiveness of Democrats' attempts to campaign against Bush's stewardship, adding that the failure bodes well for Bush and the GOP in 2004.
In Kentucky, for example, Democratic Attorney General Ben Chandler tried to link GOP Rep. Ernie Fletcher with the "Bush economy," while in Mississippi incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) tried to cast the Washington ties of former GOP chair Haley Barbour as a liability. "[Chandler] tried his darndest to connect Ernie Fletcher with, in his words, George Bush's failed economic policies," says Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster who worked on the race. "It [was] just a terrible miscalculation on his part."
At the same time, Democrats caution that the results may have less to do with partisanship than with an anti-incumbent wave that began in the 2002 elections. When voters are unhappy, they tend to blame chief executives - a trend that may affect Bush.
Indeed, even in the South, analysts caution that Republicans ought not to become overly confident in the wake of Tuesday's results. "Every time a Republican incumbent messes up, voters [are willing to turn to the other party]," notes Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report. "South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi have all had Republican governors and then elected Democrats to succeed them. It'll happen again."
Still, the additional governorships will give Bush and the GOP a greater foothold in the region going into 2004, and perhaps beyond. In Mississippi in particular, analysts expect Gov.-elect Barbour to build up the GOP apparatus. "Barbour has been a master of organization" for the Republican Party nationally, says Black. "If Democrats think their situation is bad in Mississippi today, it's going to get worse."