Maybe a Democrat can win in the South

The region looked all but impregnable for Bush. But some say the right Democrat could make electoral inroads.

On this tiny crossroads along a fading Tobacco Row, a visitor from the North can get a quick glimpse into why the Democrats are losing ground in the struggle for the region's hearts and minds.

After President Bush's sweep of the South, some commentators have wondered aloud about this "uneducated" region and its propensity to vote against its own interests: After all, it sends the most soldiers to die in battle, yet exhibits the most gung-ho patriotism; it's the poorest pocket of the country, yet it voted against a candidate promising a big expansion of government health insurance.

But if intelligence is measured by capability for abstract thought and grasp of paradox, Mark Pierce, a Lizard Lick contractor, is a Rhodes scholar. He says there's a time-worn wisdom to the vote. Of the Northern coastal elite, he says: "I think it pretty much shows their own ignorance when they badmouth middle America."

For the Democratic Party, finding a winning formula in the South suddenly seems vital, albeit fraught with difficulties. Yet political strategists say making some inroads is not an insurmountable task.

"If a Democrat like John Kerry comes out to southwest Virginia and he tells everybody out here he's going to give him a $1,000 check, they'd never vote for it," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a rural strategist for the Democratic Party. "Until you get through the culture, they won't trust you and they won't believe you."

Democrats have failed to win a single Southern state in the past two presidential elections. Ten years ago, there were 17 Democratic senators from the South, but only four are returning to Washington in January. Experts see the region voting against liberal progressivism in favor of a more Jeffersonian ideal of a country of small property owners, ready to do battle to protect its values and ways.

Despite the odds, some political experts say the New South offers a unique opportunity for Democrats, as a land not at all monolithic. Humbled Democratic adviser Paul Begala last week suggested that the party would do well to swallow its pride, turn away from Washington, and scour the South and Midwest for capable and charismatic governors to help turn back the march of Republicanism.

"The South clearly has converged with the nation in many respects. We've closed a lot of gaps and we've gained more jobs than any other region," says Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Life, Media, and Politics at University of North Carolina. "But where there still remains a difference is on cultural factors ... and Republicans more than Democrats have captured that difference."

This political powerhouse that is the South, has come to symbolize everything that is either wrong or right with politics in America today. When Democrats cast their eyes across the Mason-Dixon line after John Kerry's defeat, many surely see a foreign population - more likely to oppose abortion, gay marriage, and gun control. Even the thousands of newcomers who arrive in the South each year often share the region's ideals.

"It seems the Democrats can't quite figure out how to appeal to this kind of bedrock heartland vote without betraying some fundamental principles," says Dixie sociologist John Shelton Reed, author of "My Tears Spoiled My Aim."

Figuring out the South is seen as a key to grasping an electoral majority, but not everyone says this requires impossible compromises. To Saunders, it's more than just "moral values." It's about understanding today's happy-go-lucky confederacy of evangelicals, small business owners, farmers, and immigrants. Many Democrats, he says, "think it's all about the causes, yet it's really all about the culture."

The Evangelical vote turned out to be hardly larger than 2000. But other things are going on in the South, including the rise of an entrepreneurial class benefiting from tax cuts. At the same time, Southerners, so many of whom grew out of a Democratic tradition, don't share a hatred of government. "Even the affluent suburbanites aren't just right-wingers," says Mr. Guillory in Chapel Hill. "Now, they may go to the new nondenominational megachurch, but they also want a good public school and they want their roads paved and they want their kids to get into the good state college."

Alabama's white males may have voted almost to a man for Bush. But "one of the failings of the Democrats is to treat the South monolithically and to believe that North Carolina is Alabama and Virginia is Mississippi," says Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "If you take the states of the old Confederacy, at least two of them - Virginia and North Carolina - are more affluent, cosmopolitan, and have more of a post industrial, high-tech, service-based economy. And in these states it won't take that much, in the right circumstances, to get a Democratic presidential candidate to win."

Competing in the region may also require some home-grown candidates - think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. That means governorships. "We vote for people who live close to us, people who are like us, or people who stand out," says Robert Freymeyer, a sociologist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

Democrats have some stars. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, who was easily reelected Tuesday along with a revived Democratic majority in the House, is a good example, says Guillory: "Easley's a prosecutor who put people in jail, fought the drug traffic, crashed his NASCAR into the wall, goes to church every week, and yet he's a genuine Democrat."

Whichever party wins, says Saunders, "People are going to start being nice to us now and giving us proper respect."

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