- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

Some Southern Democratic leaders believe presidential candidate Howard Dean is “too liberal” to win the region if he is the party’s nominee in a contest against President Bush.

Interviews with Democratic chairmen throughout the Southern and border states elicit a range of surprisingly frank emotions about the party’s feisty, Northeastern front-runner — from impressive to wait-and-see discomfort to fear that his liberal views on Iraq, tax cuts and social issues once again would allow Mr. Bush to sweep the region, as he did in 2000 against Al Gore.

Most acknowledge the growing conservatism that dominates their region, and some concede it will be difficult, if not impossible, to carry many Southern states if the nominee is out of step with mainstream Southern values.

“I think Dean is perceived as quite liberal. Unless his perception can go beyond the governor of Vermont who signed legislation supporting gay ‘marriages,’ that is a death knell here in Kentucky,” said state Rep. Susan Westrom, state Democratic chairman.

“The rural South is not progressive, as far as social issues. They are deeply faith-based on moral issues. They look critically at anything that can undermine the social fabric of their community,” Mrs. Westrom said.

Moretta Bosley, the state’s former Democratic chairwoman, underscores that view about the former Vermont governor.

“He would have a hard time carrying Kentucky. He’s a little too liberal for most Kentuckians, who are a little more conservative than the rest of the Democratic Party,” she said.

The South is a deeply patriotic region of the country, where Mr. Bush has substantial support for his policies in Iraq, many Democrats said.

“If I went out and talked to 50 people on the street, 49 would support the president on Iraq,” Mrs. Bosley said.

North Carolina Democratic Chairwoman Barbara Allen also thinks Mr. Dean would spell trouble for her party if he is the nominee.

“I don’t think he plays that well in North Carolina. I don’t think he will play well in the South, period,” she said in an interview. “I’m speaking personally, but I don’t think he knows a lot about the South. His remark about going after voters in pickups with Confederate flags rubbed people the wrong way here.”

Mrs. Allen, who is supporting North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, says she thinks the party needs to pick a “more centrist” candidate for its nominee.

Tennessee state Democratic Chairman Randy Button has similar concerns about who his party will pick next year and points out that the only times Democrats have been competitive recently in the South is when a Southerner was on the ticket.

“We have to have a Southerner on the ticket to be viable in the South,” he said.

However, he sees Mr. Dean as a work in progress with both pluses and minuses.

“There’s some areas and issues where Dean is not going to play well in the South, and other issues where he will play well — with his support from the [National Rifle Association] on gun issues.”

As for Mr. Dean’s antiwar position on Iraq, “it can cut both ways,” Mr. Button said.

But if Mr. Button could choose the party’s nominee, “someone of more moderate thinking would play better in the South,” he said.

As for the intraparty squabble among the presidential candidates over Mr. Dean’s recent remark about reaching out to white Southern voters who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them, very few of the state chairmen were offended by his remark.

“I understand the point he was trying to make, but I don’t know if he knows exactly how tall an order recruiting those voters would actually be,” said Mississippi Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole.

The South remains the linchpin of Republican electoral power in presidential elections. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House and if Mr. Bush were to sweep all 13 Southern states in 2004, that would give him 169 votes for starters.

Political strategists say it is possible to win the presidency without carrying the South, but it would be a steep climb. Bill Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas, was competitive in the South in both of his presidential victories, capturing four Southern states in 1992 and 1996.

Democratic chairmen interviewed for this article were nearly unanimous in their belief that their party would have little, if any, chance of beating Mr. Bush if it could not carry some of the South. And many said the South has become so conservative in the past decade that Democrats would have to invest far more resources and time in key Southern states than they have in the past in order to attain some electoral success.

“It won’t be easier, no matter who the nominee will be,” said Carol Khare, state Democratic vice chairwoman in South Carolina. “There are no Southern states that a Democratic nominee can win without a strong presence.”

Still, many Democrats said they expected the political pendulum eventually will swing back their way.

“These elections swing back and forth, depending on the issues and how the economy does. We still have a year to go and a lot of things could be different by next November,” said Ron Oliver, the Arkansas Democratic chairman.

“It’s difficult to win the presidency without winning one or two Southern states, but I think it can be done,” Mr. Oliver said.

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