The solid Republican South is looking a little less solid lately, with several battleground states giving the Democrats a rare chance to crack open the Republican Party's electoral lock on the politically conservative region.
Political analysts expect Republican Sen. John McCain to sweep most, if not all, of the 11 Southern states that made up the Old Confederacy. However, some say Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has a shot at scoring upsets in three or four states where the freshman senator is heavily focusing most of his resources and where the presidential race appears close: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
President Bush swept all 11 states in the South in 2000 and 2004, reaping its 153 electoral votes. If Mr. McCain were to repeat Mr. Bush's performance, Mr. Obama would need to win 70 percent of the remaining electoral votes to get the 270 required to clinch the election - a steep climb that would be almost impossible to reach.
The four target states on the Obama campaign's radar screen would put 70 electoral votes into his column, significantly reducing his electoral challenge in the rest of the country.
"These are the Southern states where Obama has a chance, but I think John McCain will win the rest of the Deep South" said Merle Black, a noted political science professor at Georgia's Emory University who has published numerous studies about Southern political trends.
"The thing to look at in these Southern states that have voted GOP in the past is that many of them have the highest black voting population* in America, and that is the foundation upon which Obama is building an attempt to reshape the battlegrounds in some of them," said Matthew Towery, who heads the Atlanta-based InsiderAdvantage poll, which specializes in the South.
"So he has a chance in Virginia for sure, North Carolina is a possibility, and Georgia would be seen as an upset. If the Obama campaign could put together any combinations of those states, his strategy is to replace the electoral votes that could conceivably be lost in Florida."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts before him and even former Vice President Al Gore largely wrote off the South with the exception of Florida. Mr. Obama, however, has moved a large campaign ground force and major TV ad buys into those four states, where his campaign strategy is to significantly boost turnout among blacks and younger voters and increase his appeal among white voters.
Many analysts, though, question whether younger voters, with notoriously low turnout rates, will turn out this time in significant enough numbers and whether Mr. Obama can overcome Mr. McCain's substantial double-digit advantage among white voters.
His ground troops are part of a voter-registration army of hundreds of volunteers who are working nearly full time for six weeks this summer registering blacks, Latinos and Hispanics and younger voters, who have been heavily drawn to his candidacy.
In North Carolina, for example, which Mr. Bush carried by more than 435,000 votes in 2004, the Illinois Democrat has a paid staff of nine and more than 150 mostly full-time volunteers who are registering voters.
A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic group, reported at the end of last month that Mr. Obama trailed his Republican rival by just four points (41 percent to 45 percent) in the state, with Libertarian candidate Bob Barr at 5 percent. However, though Mr. Obama has a 76 percent to 15 percent lead among blacks, Mr. McCain was leading him by 53 percent to 32 percent among white voters.
In Georgia, which has one of the largest black voter populations in the country, the race was even tighter: Mr. McCain holds a slim two-point lead (46 percent to 44 percent), according to an InsiderAdvantage poll on July 2. Mr. Barr drew 4 percent.
"The Obama campaign is saturating television in the state, clearly believing that the 15 electoral votes in Georgia are up for grabs," PPP pollsters said.
Yet some analysts say Georgia remains a difficult challenge for the Democrats because of a number of factors.
"For Obama to win Georgia, several things have to happen," Mr. Black said. "He has to have a huge turnout of African-Americans. In July, just 28.1 percent of registered voters were African-Americans. That is not up a lot from 2004, when they made up 27.4 percent. It could be up a little, but they are talking about registering 100,000 voters a month" - a difficult challenge at best, he said.
"And then he needs McCain to run a lot weaker among white voters than Bush did. Bush won 76 percent of the white vote in 2004, Kerry got 23 percent. McCain's not at Bush level, I don't think. Bob Barr, a former congressman from there, has the potential to hurt McCain in Georgia among whites, but I think there is a real limit to Barr's support. He doesn't have much money and will not be part of the debate," Mr. Black said.
"I still think McCain is the favorite to win Georgia. I don't think there is any question that he is going to get a majority of the white votes."
Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland political science professor who has published a study of Southern voting trends, concluded earlier this month in a New York Times column that "Mr. Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina" because even a larger black vote would not be enough to offset Mr. McCain's advantage among white voters.
Virginia is a different case entirely, and Mr. Obama could carry it, analysts say. A SurveyUSA poll late last month showed the race there in a statistical tie, with Mr. Obama holding a two-point edge, 49 percent to 47 percent in recent polls.
The state, because of an influx of non-Southern voters in the past decade or more, has been trending Democratic, though it has remained in the Republican column in presidential races. Mr. Bush carried the state by more than 262,000 votes in the last election.
Mr. Obama, boasting $95 million in cash on hand, has been saturating the state, especially Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia, with TV ads. The presumptive Democratic nominee does best among voters between the ages of 35 and 49, where he holds a 12-point lead, but Mr. McCain has an 18-point lead among voters older than 65 and has a 13-point lead among white voters.
"I think Virginia is very competitive right now and Obama has a shot at it," Mr. Black said.
Florida remains the fourth battleground in the South where the Obama campaign is investing significant resources. Polls show the race there in a statistical tie, with Mr. McCain holding a 2.2 percent edge last week - though analysts say Mr. McCain retains the advantage there because of the state's large military and older population and its Republican majority.
"The conventional wisdom is that Florida will not be as strong a state for Obama as it was for Kerry or for Gore. So Obama's strategy has been to basically nail down Virginia, make North Carolina competitive where you have a high black voting-age population, and really push hard in Georgia," Mr. Towery said.
Both campaigns acknowledge the challenges they face in the general election and say they are taking nothing for granted in the South.
"Whether you live in the Northeast or in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia or Florida, the majority of this country is not pleased with how Washington works, and they want change. We are serious about playing in the South; we mean business," said Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro.
"Barack Obama has talked a lot about competing down there, but we are under no illusions and taking nothing for granted. We're building organizations in all the [Southern] states, and we'll be campaigning throughout them in places like Virginia and Florida. We're going to fight for every vote," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
By Mark Mix
Home day care providers would be forced into unions
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
What does the middle-class conservative think about everything? Find out here.
Video reviews of today's hottest trends in Minecraft (servers and mods) along with a look at the latest video games with your host MCairsoft14 (alias Jerad Zad).
The cold hard truth about politics in America today and the state of this once great nation.
Uncensored exploration of issues concerning current events, civil liberties, American political advocacy, and the political and social issues facing military veterans.
World's Ugliest Dog Contest
Spelling Bee finale
Marines train Afghan soldiers
Rolling Thunder 2013
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal