President George W. Bush may have hit a rough patch, but there's one part of the country where he is still walking tall: the South. Despite sliding to a 50% job approval rating in a Feb. 12-15 CBS News Poll -- down from 60% in late December -- Bush maintains a double-digit lead in the South in matchups with his top Democratic rivals. Combine that with his sweep of 11 Southern states in 2000, and it's not hard to figure out why Democrats are contemplating a route to the White House that doesn't run through Dixie. "Al Gore proved that you can win the election without a single Southern state, if he'd only won New Hampshire," Democratic front-runner John Kerry told supporters in San Francisco last spring.
The Massachusetts senator has since explained that he was talking arithmetic, not strategy. But Democratic operatives say the party may have no choice but to bypass the South's 153 electoral votes -- 57% of the 271 total needed to win.
So party strategists are looking West -- to the Midwest or Southwest, that is. They are focusing on the industrial heartland, where manufacturing jobs have been exported by the millions, and the rapidly growing Southwest, where Democrats could reap benefits from favorable demographic trends. Either gambit will require the party to hammer Bush on economics, quiet any debate over divisive cultural issues, pick the right candidate for Veep -- and get lucky.
Still, no Democrat has ever been elected without winning some states of the old Confederacy. The candidate must hold on to all of Gore's "blue" states -- which have only 260 electoral votes now, down from 267 in 2000 because of post-census reapportionment -- and win states with 10 more. Without the South, a Democrat will have to carry 70% of the rest of the nation's electoral votes -- in the face of a $200 million GOP campaign to portray the Democratic nominee as an out-of-the-mainstream lefty. "It's mathematically possible," says Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, "but it's like drawing an inside straight."
Democrats are careful not to write off the South, insisting that they can be competitive in Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana, three states that Bill Clinton carried in 1996. If North Carolina Senator John Edwards is on the ticket, Dems dream of putting his economically battered state in play, too. But some analysts say it would be a mistake to pour many precious dollars into long-shot contests in Dixie. "Democrats will lose the war if they choose to fight a lot of battles in the South," says political scientist Andrew Hernandez of St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
By Labor Day, the Dems will decide which battles are worth their resources. But they already are concentrating on these two theoretical ways of winning without the South:
THE HEARTLAND STRATEGY. This game plan would focus on recapturing three states narrowly won by Bush: West Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri. West Virginia, with five electoral votes, is a traditionally Democratic state where Gore didn't invest the effort to overcome a backlash against his environmentalism. It has been hammered by the economic downturn, and many blue-collar voters who favored Bush in 2000 are angry about his decision to end steel tariffs. Missouri (11 electoral votes) is one of the most closely contested states in the nation and has been slow to bounce back from the recession. And Bush may be vulnerable in Ohio (20 electoral votes), which has lost 230,000 manufacturing jobs since he became President. "It's very hard to imagine any way the Republicans win without Ohio," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.
Already, the export of factory jobs has dimmed Bush's hopes for capturing three big industrial states he has targeted -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. "The more that manufacturing is part of the debate -- and cultural issues fail to dominate -- the more the Democrats benefit," argues G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. But Republicans aren't giving up on the Midwest without a fight. Indeed, Karl Rove & Co. are targeting three blue states where Gore eked out victories: Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
To boost Democratic prospects in the heartland, the nominee could choose as a running mate Representative Dick Gephardt of St. Louis, a longtime ally of organized labor who might be able to deliver his home state. Another possibility: Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a rising star who earned headlines for a Feb. 13 speech at Georgetown University blasting the President's economic policies as "deeply ideological, politically cynical, and deceptive."
THE SOUTHWEST STRATEGY. Democrats are also musing about challenging Bush in three red states -- Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. In this high-growth region, with a cache of 24 electoral votes, swelling numbers of Latinos and migrants from California and the Northeast have watered down the historical Republican advantage. Arizona and New Mexico both replaced Republicans with Democratic governors in 2002, and Dems are convinced that they can be competitive if they energize Mexican-American voters. To tip the balance, they might consider a Hispanic Vice-Presidential candidate such as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Of course, Democrats could skip the regional game and just try to pick targets of opportunity as they develop. Today, the most vulnerable red states appear to be Nevada, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. The list could grow to include Florida and Arkansas if the nominee can connect with swing voters. Mostly, though, Democrats are not counting on any Southern comfort in 2004.
By Richard S. Dunham in Washington