- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

RICHMOND — Democrats running for president vowed last night to win the South away from the Republican Party this year, starting here in the Old Dominion.

“George Bush needs to look to Richmond here in the South tonight,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told a crowd of about 2,000 Virginia Democrats attending the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, the state party’s biggest fund-raiser of the year. “This is the beginning of the end of his administration.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, fresh from wins yesterday in the Michigan and Washington caucuses, was among four of the presidential contenders present at the Richmond Marriott and hoping to win more supporters for Tuesday’s primary in Virginia.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose campaign is sinking, canceled his appearance.

Mr. Kerry remains favored to win here, but Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Wesley Clark, a former Army general, are duking it out across the South in hopes of emerging as the primary alternative to Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Sharpton predicted that Southerners — who have voted for Republican presidents for decades — would not be divided this year on social issues such as homosexual “marriage” and abortion, but rather would vote as one on the issue of slow job creation.

“This debate will not be about who you sleep with,” Mr. Sharpton said. “This debate will be about whether you have a job when you wake up.”

Mr. Kerry argued that he could bridge the differences on social issues as the party’s nominee to face President Bush.

“We Democrats will not run from a fight about who represents mainstream Americans,” Mr. Kerry said. “We welcome it.”

Outside the massive coliseum, picket-carrying Democrats at times were outnumbered by others hoisting graphic anti-abortion signs and Confederate battle flags. An occasional passing vehicle slowed for an occupant to scream out the window: “Vote Bush!”

Inside, the four candidates made an effort to applaud recent Democratic successes in this conservative state. In 2001, they won the governor’s mansion, and last fall gained three seats in the General Assembly’s House of Delegates.

Democratic victories have come through promises of fiscal responsibility, said Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is pushing a landmark tax-code revision that raises taxes. “Those are the issues that not only Virginians care about; they are the issues Americans care about.”

Mr. Warner will endorse Mr. Kerry today, the Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed party official. The real fight in Virginia appears to be between Mr. Edwards and Mr. Clark for second place.

Mr. Clark, an Arkansas native who has voted for Republican presidents, said family values alone won’t be the winning factor in the South.

“If you’re going to talk family values, you better talk employment,” he said. “And if you’re going to talk family values, you better talk health care.”

Mr. Edwards, looking for wins Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee, nearly missed the event because of a flat tire. This prompted the master of ceremonies to blame Republicans for shortchanging spending on roads.

Mr. Edwards said the South had been neglected by Republicans and promised the crowd that he could win it.

“The folks in the South are tired of the Republicans taking them for granted,” he said. “They want somebody to fight for them.”

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