Regional politics

Posted: Feb 05, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Baltimore Orioles began the 1988 season 0-21, a record. But records are made to be broken and Howard Dean is 0-9, heading for Saturday's Michigan and Washington caucuses and muttering about might-have-beens, such as: If only John Kerry had gone 7-0 on Tuesday.

Dean actually needed a seven-state sweep by Kerry. Joe Lieberman is gone. Wesley Clark soon will be, his campaign lacking national reach. And if John Edwards had lost South Carolina, he would have withdrawn. Then Dean, in a two-man competition, could have revived the narrative that served him well:

``Representing 'the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' I am plucky David against the Goliath of the party establishment that has collaborated with President Bush. Do Democrats really want to nominate Kerry -- a Washington insider and faux populist who voted for the war?''

Ralph Nader must be smiling, in his dour way, now that Dean is saying that Kerry is a ``Republican,'' ``Bush lite,'' ``no different'' than Bush as being ``a handmaiden to special interests'' and is making ``crazy'' promises of tax cuts and spending increases and is ``a Washington insider who shifts back and forth with every poll,'' exemplifying ``exactly what's wrong with American politics.'' Dean, sinking with his guns blazing, is providing a pretext -- and a cadre -- for another run by Nader (or a kindred spirit), whose 2000 candidacy prevented Al Gore from winning.

Kerry poses for Bush less of a planning challenge because he is less exotic than Edwards, who is undefined by long public service, and is inexplicably cheerful as he explains how The Many are being crushed by The Few. Granted, Kerry looks like someone who has faced a lot of life, whereas Edwards looks like someone looking forward to the prom. But were Edwards nominated, he would instantly graduate to gravitas. However, Edwards' real role this year may be to catalyze fresh Democratic thinking about the South.

Kerry notes that if Gore had carried New Hampshire, he would have become president without a single Southern electoral vote. Indeed, for generations, Republicans won the presidency without winning any or significant numbers of those votes.

In the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma, the first seven Republicans elected president after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 won the following numbers of electoral votes: Garfield 0, Harrison 0, McKinley 12 (Kentucky), Roosevelt 0, Taft 0, Harding 22 (Oklahoma and Tennessee), Coolidge 13 (Kentucky). In 1928, Hoover won 85 (Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) but only because Democrats nominated a Catholic, Al Smith.

In 1952 Eisenhower began the Republican rise in the South, winning 65 electoral votes from Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Notice, this was before the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling. In 1956, long before the civil rights revolution reached a boil, Eisenhower added 20 more votes, from Kentucky and Louisiana.

Much academic and journalistic energy has been expended attempting to prove that Republicans became competitive in the South not because of positive change there but because of a negative change in the GOP-- pandering to racists. But Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia notes that Eisenhower, like Richard Nixon in 1960, polled badly among Deep South whites. Eisenhower ran strongest in the ``peripheral South,'' the least polarized part.

States representing more than half the Southern electoral votes have been, Alexander notes, ``consistently in play'' beginning in 1952. That was before the Goldwater candidacy, before school busing, and at a time when congressional Republicans were stronger supporters than Democrats were of civil rights bills. A higher proportion of Republican than Democratic senators voted for the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills, and in 1968 Deep South whites preferred George Wallace to Nixon.

Beginning in the 1950s, millions of Midwesterners and Northeasterners moved to the South. But, Alexander says, instead of voting Democratic, they voted Republican ``at higher rates than native whites.'' Even today, ``identification with the GOP is stronger among the South's younger rather than older white voters.'' Republican strength has been highest among persons young, suburban, middle class, educated, non-Southern in origin and concentrated in the least ``Southern'' high-growth areas.

As Democrats embrace Kerry because of his ``electability,'' and as he ponders a strategy -- including a running mate -- for assembling 270 electoral votes, they and he should understand this: Their Southern problem is rooted not in regnant racism but in the region's increasingly individualistic, optimistic, entrepreneurial and religious culture. As Democrats build from the easiest to the most challenging electoral votes, should they gamble on finding the 270th in the South?