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The Nation

Democrats' Hopes Rest on Dixie

Politics: The party has a rare opportunity to gain ground in the South, where four incumbent Republican senators are retiring after this year.

July 27, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURLINGTON, N.C. — On a sweltering summer morning, Erskine Bowles is crisp and collected as he greets supporters at breakfast here and smoothly fields questions on issues from Iraq to health care.

Over eggs and grits, Bowles, the front-runner for the Democratic Senate nomination in North Carolina, hammers at the bread-and-butter messages his party is stressing across the country this year. He pledges to create a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, put more money into education and resist Republican plans to partially privatize Social Security.

But Bowles, a businessman and former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, also stresses his North Carolina roots. That's a none-too-subtle dig at the anticipated Republican nominee: former GOP presidential candidate Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who has lived most of her adult life outside the state.

North Carolina is one of four Southern states that will choose new senators this fall to replace retiring Republican incumbents. The Democratic contenders, like Bowles, are stressing lunch-bucket economics and clawing for any local advantage in a quartet of races that have emerged as pivotal battlegrounds.

In a region that reveres incumbency, this unusual confluence of open seats represents a critical opportunity for Democrats.

With both parties on track to field strong candidates in all the races, the contests will provide a revealing measure of the new partisan balance in Dixie--and test the extent of the mini-revival that Democrats have enjoyed across the region since the low point of the mid-1990s. Also, with several Democratic incumbents in the Midwest facing tough races, some analysts believe the party may be unable to retain its slim control of the Senate unless it captures at least one of the South's four open seats.

These elections will replace some of the biggest names in the Senate: conservative icons Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Strom Thurmond in South Carolina and Phil Gramm in Texas, as well as Fred Thompson, a telegenic moderate from Tennessee.

Several of those vying for the openings--such as charismatic Republican Rep. Lindsey O. Graham in South Carolina and Ron Kirk, an African American Democrat and former Dallas mayor, in Texas--could quickly become national stars if they win. The White House recognizes the stakes in the contests: President Bush already has headlined fund-raisers for Graham and John Cornyn, the GOP nominee and attorney general in Texas, and Thursday he campaigned with Dole in North Carolina.

The early line among political analysts gives Republicans a slight chance of holding all four seats. But none is a sure thing for the GOP. Both sides consider Democrats within reach in each race; in Texas, Kirk has led Cornyn in the polls.

"I think all of these open-seat races are going to be competitive," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston and co-author of the book "The Rise of Southern Republicans." "I would give Republicans a modest edge in all four, but nothing that amounts to any kind of certainty."

Even those odds represent an improvement for Democrats in the South.

During the 1980s, Democrats steadily lost ground in the region as white Southerners who began voting Republican for president in the 1960s increasingly backed GOP candidates in Senate and House elections. During Clinton's often chaotic first term, the number of Southern Democrats in Congress fell to its lowest point since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. By 1996, Southern Republicans controlled 71 of the 125 House seats and 15 of the 22 Senate seats in the 11 states of the old Confederacy.

In 2000, Bush underscored the continuing Republican strength in the region by winning all 11 of these states. But local Democratic candidates had stopped their retreat and even begun to advance.

Since 1996, Southern Democrats have essentially held even in the House, reduced the GOP margin by two seats in the Senate and made an unexpected breakthrough in governor's races. Democrats now control the governorship in six of the 11 states.

National and local factors contributed to the modest improvement. Democrats have improved the turnout of African Americans and made some inroads among Southern white suburbanites, largely through their support for public education. They also benefited from Clinton's greater success, beginning late in his first term, at moving his party toward the center on issues such as the federal budget deficit and welfare reform.

"It is a much better situation to run as a Democrat in the South," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. "Mere association with the Democrats isn't disqualifying, which for a time it might have been."

Still, in the South's four closely watched Senate races this year, it's the GOP candidates who are most eager to associate with their national party. Across the board, the Republicans are linking themselves to Bush, not only on the war against terrorism but also by pledging to defend his tax cut.

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