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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Campaign Shifts Its Focus to Southwest

Except for Florida, Democrats have all but given up on the South, an unprecedented move.

October 22, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — When John Kerry arrives in Reno today for his sixth visit to Nevada this year, he will underscore a dramatic shift in the geography of the race for the White House.

Kerry, in a virtually unprecedented move for a Democrat, is relying more on the West than the South in his plan to reach the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Once the party of the "Solid South," Democrats this year are not actively contesting any state in the region except Florida in the presidential campaign. Instead, Kerry has shifted his attention west, mounting major efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and, at one point, Arizona.

"In the 1980s and the 1990s, the Holy Grail was to make the Democratic Party competitive in the South again," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a political action committee that supports centrist party officials. "Now the Southwest is a vital, new part of the Democratic strategy."

This shift may reflect equal parts opportunity and weakness.

Democrats see opportunity across the Southwest in its growing Latino population and signs that the region's moderate suburbanites may be warming to the party's stances on social issues.

But Republicans see Kerry's emphasis on the Southwest -- particularly the GOP-leaning states of Colorado and Arizona -- as a measure of his limited options for reaching 270 electoral votes while writing off virtually every Southern state.

"They are focusing on it out of necessity," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President Bush's reelection campaign. "Their map is shrinking."

The largest concentration of battlegrounds in the 2004 campaign -- as in most recent presidential races -- remains a group of states in the industrial heartland whose demographic diversity denies either side a decisive advantage.

But the next tier of contested states has conspicuously shifted from the South toward the Southwest. Kerry may be the first Democratic presidential nominee who hopes to win in November without seriously contesting any Southern state except Florida -- which politically has more in common with New Jersey than Georgia or Alabama.

"This has never happened before -- never," said Ralph Reed, the Georgia-based Southeastern chairman for Bush's campaign.

Democratic nominees have almost always targeted at least some Southern states. As recently as 2000, Gore demonstrated his commitment to competing in the South by buying television advertisements in October in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana as well as Florida, according to ad tracking conducted for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Yet Gore, a Southern Baptist, still lost to Bush in all 11 states of the Old Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. Those 13 states provided Bush 60% of his 271 electoral votes.

To some Democrats, Gore's narrow electoral college defeat showed the difficulty of winning the White House without capturing any Southern ground; to others, it demonstrated that the party could reach a majority without the South if it made small gains elsewhere.

Kerry and his aides began the general election pledging to recapture some Southern states -- or at least contest them seriously. His campaign and the Democratic National Committee bought television time in North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Louisiana. And Kerry's selection of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate seemed designed, in part, to broaden the ticket's appeal in the South.

But Kerry and the DNC have not been on the air with ads in North Carolina since July, Louisiana since August, and Arkansas and Virginia since early September, according to the ad tracking.

Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor, said the campaign was still considering a final push in either Arkansas or North Carolina. But for all practical purposes, analysts say, Kerry appears to have conceded 141 electoral college votes across the region to Bush, still contesting only the 27 in Florida.

"It's a replay of the 2000 election, where except for Florida the presidential contest wasn't really close in any of the Southern states," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of several books on Southern politics. As his fallback if he falls short in some of the Midwest's swing states, such as Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, Kerry increasingly has looked to the Southwest.

In recent years, many top Democratic strategists have hoped that the growth of the Southwest's Latino population would gradually strengthen Democratic prospects in the region. But, like a baseball team forced to call up a promising young prospect more quickly than it expected, Democrats are banking on the area more than party leaders anticipated.

"The potential opportunities [in the Southwest] just looked better than some of the [Southern] states where we had previously advertised," Devine said.

Kerry hasn't been seen in the South in months, but after his visit to Reno, he has stops scheduled Saturday in Colorado and New Mexico.

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