Next: Sun Belt and beyond

Feb. 3 primaries span from Arizona optimism to Carolina grit.

In South Carolina, Democratic voters are worried about the loss of manufacturing jobs, and looking for a presidential candidate tough enough to take on President Bush.

Arizona Democrats, in contrast, live in a state that's optimistic and forward-looking - the epitome of the sunny New West.

Missouri, demographically, is a microcosm of the country as a whole. Democrats there are just getting over the political demise of their favorite son, Dick Gephardt.

Oklahoma is conservative. If Democratic candidates stressing their military record do poorly here, they may be in trouble nationwide.

Welcome to the kaleidoscope that is the next round of Democratic primaries. These states - and three others - all vote on Feb. 3.

The dramatic expansion of voting will test candidates in new ways, forcing them to confront issues they may have heretofore avoided and to campaign in regions they haven't visited much.

When it's over, Democrats will have a much better idea of the breadth of the top candidates' appeal - and whether any seems capable of a breakthrough in the crucial southern arc.

"No Democrat in this day and age is going to win the presidency without cracking the South," says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Not all Democratic party strategists agree completely with that assessment. It's within the realm of possibility that a Democrat might win the White House without Dixie, by making inroads in the West.

But there's no dispute that winning at least some Southern states would make victory for the Democratic nominee a lot easier - and that the type of candidate who appeals to Southerners is also likely to do well in the Plains states and other areas outside the Northeast.

Thus South Carolina may be the most crucial test on Feb. 3, particularly for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The vote will measure their appeal to both conservative whites and African-American voters, who were in short supply in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Where personality and electability took top billing in the campaign's first contests, issues - jobs and trade especially - are more important to the one stoplight towns and hunting grounds between Charleston and Columbia. One big question in South Carolina: whether voters will forgive and forget Mr. Kerry's decision to largely forgo campaigning here until now.

"It's a completely different election in South Carolina," says Carroll Doherty, a pollster with the Pew Research Center in Washington. "There's a large number of African-Americans and a lot more cultural conservatives."

There's also more economic unease. At the nine-mile marker between Chester and Carlisle, Brenton Feaster crosses his hands over an ample belly as he considers the race from a county recycling center.

Despite his belief that President Bush is a "good, Christian man," Mr. Feaster says he'll take a hard look at the Democratic candidates. He's looking for someone to ease his economic woes. The retired dye-plant worker lives in a trailer, draws a $31-a-month pension, and has to rely on a government disability check for his daily grits and eggs.

Too many people in South Carolina "are on the edge of nowhere right now," he says.

Both Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark will be able to exploit their military careers here. The Rev. Al Sharpton is likely to do much better than in New Hampshire, where he drew under 400 votes. But the candidate with the most at stake here may be Sen. John Edwards. He's from neighboring North Carolina, his pitch for economic empowerment might play well here, and his accent is right.

Still, whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be, the state is likely to go Republican in November.

But the type of Democrat who can win over Democrats in South Carolina may be the type of Democrat who can pick up one, maybe even two Southern states.

They might also appeal to Oklahoma. The local filling station in Canadian, Okla., doesn't yet have automated credit-card machines. The pumps are the old kind - use, and go inside to pay. Senator Edwards has never been here - but he's visited the area. That sits well with the locals.

"I like John Edwards, a lot," says Mary Beth Jones, a short woman hunkering down in a blue windbreaker on a bitterly cold day. "He's been around these parts a lot, that means something. He talks about the economy. And he's cute."

This southeast region of Oklahoma, popularly known as Little Dixie, is Democrat-happy. People care about the economy, healthcare, education, and Iraq, especially since nearby McAlester has an ammunition depot the size of Washington D.C. that manufactures virtually all of the United States's nonnuclear bombs.

Folks here enjoy shaking hands with candidates and quizzing them at the local diner. Oklahoma even moved up its primary calendar this year so that small towns like Canadian could be a player on the national political scene.

Edwards has visited Oklahoma more than 12 times in the past year. He has traveled to towns where people seldom see a political star.

General Clark has campaigned here only three times since he announced his candidacy in September. But for him, this may be a must-win state. In an American Research Group poll taken before the New Hampshire primary, Clark stood at 25 percent, with Edwards in second place, at 18 percent. Kerry's win will undoubtedly send him up in Oklahoma polls.

Of the top candidates, Dean may be the weakest here. "Howard Dean will not win Oklahoma," says Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It's the only state where Clark is leading, and if he's going to remain a viable candidate, he has to win it."

The state with the most delegates at stake on Feb. 3, however, is neither South Carolina nor Oklahoma, but Missouri. And with St. Louis-area Rep. Richard Gephardt now out of the race, one of the biggest questions here is who will inherit his supporters.

It takes experience, after all, to run campaigns in a state that mirrors America in its diversity. Kerry enters the state with the best ammunition of all: proof that he can win. All the key issues here - job loss, education, healthcare, the economy - take a back seat to electability. "The desire for Democrats to beat George Bush is palpable," says Mike Kelley, a well-connected Missourian and national campaign adviser to Gephardt who is now heading Edwards's Missouri effort.

Waiting for coffee at Starbuck's in Clayton, the seat for St. Louis County government, Sherry McGraw says she probably will vote for Kerry. "He looks like one of the Kennedys," says the chauffeur, who is a registered Democrat from nearby University City and who would have voted for Gephardt. To her, that means he looks and acts more presidential than any of the other candidates.

If Missouri is traditional America, Arizona is the image of the new. It's a Sun Belt state with areas that are growing explosively. It's the New West of retirees and subdivisions and high-tech jobs.

Santa Rita Park on Tucson's southside is nearly silent, as the Diamond Dolls Softball Team packs its equipment. Tonight was a practice game, and these determined women are tightening their teamwork. But there are a few differences when it comes to politics as the Arizona primaries near.

Debi Nelson leans against a bat, her sweatshirt with a USA logo barely keeping her warm from the evening chill. "I'm for Kerry and Edwards," she says. "Kerry because I think he's a serious candidate, and Edwards because he's so positive.

Among the political players, Arizona is seen as a bellwether, says Paul Hegarty, head of the Arizona Democratic Party. "It's the first state in the West" for the Democratic primaries, he says, and one with remarkable diversity better representing the rest of the country than New Hampshire or Iowa. "We believe it's the first true open test of the candidates," he says.

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