Kerry's Southern exposure

Posted: Feb 05, 2004 12:00 AM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Sen. John Kerry's extraordinary feat of winning seven out of the first nine tests in this year's race for the Democratic presidential nomination is mitigated by his one big loss. While the odds were stacked for Sen. John Edwards in Tuesday's South Carolina primary, the defeat still exposed a potentially fatal weakness in Kerry as President George W. Bush's opponent.

A native South Carolinian who lives in North Carolina, Edwards added to that advantage by spending much more time and money here than Kerry. Nevertheless, members of Kerry's high command hoped to clinch the nomination by sweeping all of Tuesday's elections -- including South Carolina's. That they did not come close here questions whether the South would be lost to Kerry in November.

Edwards, the only bona fide Southern politician seeking the nomination, in the flush of victory Tuesday night commented that no Democrat has been elected president without winning at least five states of the old Confederacy. Arkansan Bill Clinton won by carrying that minimum. To meet that standard, Kerry will have to do better with the white Southern voter than he showed here Tuesday.

While Kerry backers publicly called South Carolina a hill too steep to climb, a key adviser confided to me in New Hampshire a week ago, amid the euphoria of Kerry's victory there, that a clean sweep of this week's seven states was possible. The plan was for Rep. James Clyburn, the state's only African-American congressman, to deliver the black vote for Kerry while whites were divided among several candidates.

Clyburn tried hard to turn out his constituency for the Massachusetts aristocrat who campaigned little in South Carolina, but Kerry barely lost the black vote to Edwards. The problem was whites voting heavily for Edwards.

These whites were hardly the hard-core right-wing Democrats of bygone days in South Carolina. Tuesday's exit polls show that while many described themselves as "moderates," more than 70 percent were against the Iraq war -- opposite to the state's overall white profile. If Kerry has trouble attracting Democratic primary voters in the South, what chance will he stand there in a general election?

A Democrat can be elected without Southern electoral votes, but it leaves little margin for error. Al Gore demonstrated that in 2000 when he was shut out in Dixie, failing even to carry his native Tennessee.

Kerry signaled how heavily this weighs on him a week ago when he broke his customary self-discipline to declare that too much attention was being paid to the need for Southern votes. He quickly retreated from any suggestion of a non-Southern strategy, but his true beliefs were suggested.

Kerry's preoccupation with this problem was underscored in Albuquerque, N.M., the day before this week's primaries, when he committed a surprising blunder for an experienced campaigner. He spoke frankly in the presence of overhanging television microphones, which captured him telling a senior aide: "Edwards says he's the only one who can win states in the South. He can't win his own state."

That slur, deeply resented by the Edwards campaign, referred to his difficult prospects for re-election to a second Senate term from North Carolina before he dropped out to concentrate on his presidential campaign. Within 24 hours, however, Edwards demonstrated his superior appeal in his only Southern presidential test so far.

While he began his campaign a year ago as a professed moderate (who voted for the first Bush tax cut), Edwards played the populist card in South Carolina as he has elsewhere. He emphasized his humble origins as the son of a mill worker in contrast to Kerry's elite background and pointed up differences with Kerry on trade. Edwards has re-invented himself as a protectionist, contradicting his free trade voting record.

It's hard to tell whether this populist image was necessary for Edwards to win here or whether being a fellow Southerner with a familiar accent, while concentrating on the state, was sufficient. The bigger question: Would John Kerry as presidential nominee, even with John Edwards as his running mate, face the Republican South solidly aligned against him? A further answer will come next week in the results of Tennessee and Virginia primaries.