- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to dominate her rivals in the early Southern Democratic primary states, but her high negatives and polarizing image likely will keep the South in the Republican column in 2008, according to strategists and analysts in the region.

Still, analysts who track political trends in the Sunbelt states say Republicans have been hurt by the party’s divisive battle over immigration, especially in the South. That could help Democrats next year in Southern states such as Florida and Arkansas if Republicans are not unified behind their party’s presidential nominee, they say.

“I don’t think Hillary Clinton would run very well among [Southern] white voters. But if the Republicans [are] not united around their nominee, that would give someone like Hillary an opportunity,” said Merle Black, a political historian and analyst at Emory University in Georgia.

“I think there has been a lot of disaffection among Republicans in the South for President Bush, especially as a result of the immigration debate, but I don’t think that creates more Democrats in the South. If the Republicans are able to nominate someone who puts a different face on the party, then the Republicans will be back in the ballgame,” Mr. Black said.

Recent polls show Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner for her party’s nomination, lengthening her lead among Democrats in party preference polls in Florida. But she trails former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican front-runner, by five points in a head-to-head matchup, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last week.

Former President Bill Clinton, the last Democratic candidate to make electoral inroads in the South, “will campaign for her and that will play itself out, but she is a very different candidate than Bill Clinton, and she will resonate very differently in the South,” said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute’s magazine, Southern Exposure.

The latest evidence of how polarized voters are about Mrs. Clinton was presented last week in the Quinnipiac poll that asked Florida voters whether they viewed the presidential candidates favorably or unfavorably. In Mrs. Clinton’s case, voters were virtually split down the middle, 44 percent to 45 percent. No other Democrat had a higher unfavorable rating. Mr. Giuliani’s favorable/unfavorable score was 52 percent to 27 percent.

Even so, Republican campaign strategists, noting the tougher political environment their party is in, said they expected several states in the South to be more competitive in next year’s elections.

“The South remains the solid South for the Republican presidential nominee, but Florida is a battleground state, and I believe the Democrats will target Virginia in 2008, too,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads Virginia’s Republican Party.

“Virginia’s a red state, but it is not to be taken for granted,” Mr. Gillespie said, noting the Senate seat Republicans lost to Democrat James H. Webb Jr. last year. “I think it has become more competitive” as a result of the influx of federal workers and more independent voters, he said.

Mr. Gillespie rejected the notion that Mr. Clinton’s appeal among Southerners, especially in his native state of Arkansas, would help his wife in her own campaign. “She is a New Yorker,” he said.

Still, he added, “Arkansas is the one state in the South where we need to button it down.”

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