Northern Exposure

Al Gore's decision to drop out of the presidential race last month signaled a huge shift for the Democratic Party. Not only did he leave the primary field wide open but, for the first time in a dozen years, the party's nominee will likely hail from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And if President Bush loses his re-election bid, 2004 could mark the first year a non-southern Democrat has been elected to the White House since 1960.

The most recent candidates to throw their hats into the ring are former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- although in a recent article for TAP Online, I outlined the reasons I don't think Edwards' candidacy will get very far. The other two declared candidates -- Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) -- come from New England. So does Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who's expected to run. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a midwesterner, is likely to announce any day now that he's forming an exploratory committee, as is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who's from New York.

It's an unusual mix considering that the party's last three presidents -- Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas -- have called the South home. But the South has become far less hospitable to Democrats in recent years. After all, Gore lost every southern state, including his home one of Tennessee, in 2000. Yet the geography of the 2004 candidates also shows that the party may be returning to its progressive roots. Southern candidates often take more centrist positions on social issues -- the death penalty, gun control and abortion -- than their non-southern counterparts. For a party that must demonstrate that it's different from President Bush, choosing a candidate from another region of the country makes a lot of sense.

Naysayers, of course, will note that the last time the party had a non-southern presidential candidate, the election was a disaster. While no Democrat is anxious to repeat 1988, the circumstances in each election vary, and so do the candidates. I don't think anyone would confuse John Kerry for Michael Dukakis. For one thing, the Vietnam veteran wouldn't look totally out of place in a military tank. Kerry is well aware of the Dukakis connection, and of being dismissed as "another Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy liberal," as Tim Russert put it last month on Meet the Press. To insulate against the Dukakis connection, Kerry is trying to compare himself instead to another Massachusetts Democrat, John F. Kennedy. (Kerry points out that, among other things, the two share the same initials.) On Meet the Press, in defending his position on the death penalty -- the issue that stumped Dukakis in one memorably cringe-inducing presidential debate -- Kerry made an impassioned statement, saying that being locked away for life is a worse punishment than dying because, "Dying is scary for a while, but in the end, the punishment is gone."

It's not surprising that most Democratic presidential contenders, like Kerry, are coming from northern and midwestern states. Those regions have been more natural bases for Democrats than the South in recent years, a fact that wouldn't have shocked Johnson, who predicted, after the passage of civil-rights legislation in the mid-1960s, that Democrats had just lost the South for a generation. And Bush's lock on the South isn't likely to let up anytime soon, given the success of GOP candidates in 2002 -- including brother Jeb Bush's re-election as governor of Florida. As Rice University professor Earl Black described it to me, if Democrats fail to carry any southern states in 2004, they have to win more than half of the remaining electoral votes in the country. Conversely, if Republicans hold onto every southern state, they only need a relatively small percentage of votes in the rest of the country to win. "When Republicans are able to unify their southern base, they really do put a lot of pressure on the Democrats," said Black, who co-authored The Rise of Southern Republicans with his brother Merle Black.

But as Earl Black added, that phenomenon is "not a lock. It's an advantage that has to be re-created every four years." Democrats have enjoyed some important recent victories in the South, including the re-election of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in November -- despite the fact that President Bush and other top Republicans campaigned for her opponent -- and Gov. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) win in 2001. As Allison Stevens recounted in a recent story for TAP Online, it was only after Landrieu went back to the party's liberal base that she was able to pull out a victory.

Indeed, Democrats can't afford to ignore the South completely. Florida and Texas are rich in electoral votes, and South Carolina hosts one of the first 2004 primaries. But if Democrats learned anything from last year's elections, it was that they can no longer muddle their message. (This is a challenge for Edwards, who, besides running for president, is also up for a second term in the Senate, meaning that he won't be able to stray far from North Carolina's conservative politics.) Democrats need to not only criticize President Bush's programs but to offer their own alternatives. Candidates who start out with a natural liberal base and can expand that to a nationwide constituency are likely to make for stronger, more compelling nominees than those who are worried about alienating the folks at home. After all, the ghost of Dukakis can't haunt the party forever. Maybe Democrats will finally exorcise it in 2004.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is the Prospect's senior editor.