- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

The Democratic presidential candidates must fashion a more conservative message that appeals to the South if they are to beat President Bush in 2004, several state Democratic chairmen said.
With half of the six declared candidates coming from the more liberal Northeast, and with most of them brandishing liberal voting records and agendas, Democratic leaders from the more conservative South had some blunt advice for them: They need to articulate a message that resonates in Dixie.
"If they are truly from the liberal wing and their message comes across that way, if the voters perceive them to be too far left, they will have a problem in the South," said Ron Oliver, the Arkansas Democratic Party state chairman.
"There are many people in this part of the country who consider liberal to be a four-letter word. We can't appear to be captives of the loony left just like the Republicans can't afford to be captives of the radical right," said Rickey Cole, the Democratic Party chairman in Mississippi. "There's going to have to be some message development aimed at Southern voters."
A random survey of Democratic chairmen found that no one believes there is a clear front-runner in the race for the party's presidential nomination, though some said that Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina were drawing increasing support from their party's grass roots.
Most said that "the race remains wide open" and, with the exception of those states where the presidential contenders reside, no chairman has committed to any of the candidates yet.
The overriding theme that emerged in telephone interviews was concern about the party's weakness in the South, where Al Gore, the 2000 presidential nominee, did not carry a single state, including his home state of Tennessee.
When asked about their views of the party's more liberal candidates, such as Mr. Kerry and to a lesser extent Mr. Edwards, some stressed their states' conservatism without a hint of criticism of any of the candidates.
"There's no question that our state is more conservative than some of the Northeast states," Ben Jeffers, the Louisiana Democratic chairman, said without further elaboration.
"Obviously, the Southern states are more conservative, and that is a factor to be looked at by any candidate," said Bill Farmer, the former Democratic chairman of Tennessee.
Some chairmen urged the candidates to develop campaign strategies aimed at the South, including opposition to gun control, support of Mr. Bush on Iraq and emphasis on the importance of religious faith.
"They have to come up with I hate to use the word a Southern strategy. You have to put a message across that is important to the South," Mr. Farmer said.
"They've got to understand two or three things about Southerners. Number one, we are hardheaded. We don't like to be looked down upon, and we want to be recognized for the progress that we've made" on race relations, he said.
"I think all of the Democratic candidates for national office are going to have to be sensitive to the hot-button issues that have been hurting our candidates in the past, like gun control and religious faith," Mr. Cole said.
"Sometimes our national candidates and the national party have had an image of being hostile toward people of faith. I think that's an unfair characterization, but it is very much in the minds of people in this part of the country," he said.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee, has made faith and family values a major part of his message. Mr. Cole said Mr. Lieberman's message would find support in the South.
Of the six candidates in the pack, Mr. Kerry, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are among the most liberal. When asked about Mr. Kerry's liberal voting record, Mr. Oliver said, "He's got a selling job to do in the South."

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