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In the South, GOP Rides the Wave of Bush’s Popularity

Like a retreating army pushed back to the sea, Democrats rallied to hold the Louisiana governorship Saturday when Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco defeated Republican Bobby Jindal.

The win will probably avert a full-scale panic among Southern Democrats unnerved when the GOP captured governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi two weeks ago.

Yet the overall trend in the region since President Bush took office still looks ominous for Democrats. In 2004, with Bush on the ballot, the Republicans appear to be poised for further Southern gains. Indeed, the GOP’s solidifying hold on Dixie now looms as perhaps the most imposing obstacle to Democratic hopes of regaining control of either Congress or the White House.

Today, Republicans hold 87 of the 142 seats in the House of Representatives from the 11 states of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky, and they have 17 of the 26 Senate seats from those 13 states. In each chamber, the Southern advantage provides the GOP its margin of control; Democrats hold a majority of both House and Senate seats from outside the South.

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Likewise in 2000, George Bush lost 71% of the electoral votes from outside the South. He’s sitting in the White House because he won all 13 Southern states.

In 2004, population growth will swell the number of Electoral College votes from those 13 Southern states to 168. That means the South alone could provide Bush with more than three-fifths of the 270 Electoral College votes he needs for reelection. Even if Florida, the most competitive Southern state, slips away from him, the South could still give Bush just over half the electoral votes he needs.

For Democrats, this picture is especially dispiriting because it represents such a rapid deterioration in their Southern prospects. Democrats were routed across the South in the chaotic opening years of Bill Clinton’s first term. But through the late 1990s, as the economy prospered and Clinton pursued mostly centrist policies, Democrats enjoyed a modest Southern renaissance.

Every Southern state elected a governor between 1998 and 2001; the Democrats won seven of those races, the Republicans six. Through the late 1990s, Democrats also essentially held their ground in the House, and gained some in the Senate.

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But this mini-revival now looks like a kind of Indian summer. In 2002, Democratic governors were bounced in South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. The Republican tide last year also swept Saxby Chambliss into a Senate seat in Georgia past the incumbent, Democrat Max Cleland.

Democrats did hold a Senate seat in Louisiana last year and gained one in Arkansas (where Republican Tim Hutchinson had been weakened by controversy over his personal life). But those successes were far overshadowed by the Democrats’ inability to capitalize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity: the retirements of four Republican senators, which created open seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Even with conservative icons like Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Phil Gramm stepping aside, the Democrats did not come close to capturing any of those seats. The four races produced virtually carbon copy results, with the Republican candidate winning each by about 10 percentage points.

For Democrats, the scariest thing is that they lost these seats (and the two governor’s mansions they surrendered this fall) with generally well-funded, talented candidates who offered the mix of cultural centrism and middle-class economic populism that most party strategists have considered the key to Southern survival. Even with the Louisiana exception, the results strongly suggest that Bush’s popularity across the region is igniting another Southern GOP surge.

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The 2004 outlook doesn’t offer Democrats much Southern comfort either. The GOP’s success at engineering a more partisan redistricting map for Texas means Republicans could gain as many as seven House seats in the Lone Star State alone.

In the Senate, Democrats face the daunting prospect of defending seats left open by the retirements of Ernest F. Hollings in South Carolina, John Edwards (who is stepping down to run for president) in North Carolina, Bob Graham in Florida and Zell Miller in Georgia. Except in Florida, where the two parties begin statewide races at parity, all of those races will be difficult for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans have to defend only one open seat -- in Oklahoma, where Don Nickles is retiring -- and that in a state where Bush romped in 2000.

And Bush looks strong again this time. In a poll last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Americans overall split evenly on whether they now prefer Bush or a Democrat in 2004. But Bush led by seven points in the South, his best region. White Southerners preferred Bush by 20 percentage points. Evangelical white Southerners, the modern core of the GOP in Dixie, preferred Bush by 71% to 18%.

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Those margins might widen even more if the Democrats pick either former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry -- two New England social liberals -- as their nominee. But the reality is that the same cultural signals that make Bush a hard sell in Northern and Midwestern suburbs -- opposition to abortion and gun control, his use of religious language that evokes a born-again experience -- will make him an easy fit for most white Southerners no matter who the Democrats nominate.

In that light, maybe it’s time for the other Democrats to lay off Dean for allegedly alienating Southerners with his crack about the Confederate flag. Given the Republican resurgence across the region, it will be difficult for any of the Democratic contenders to seriously challenge Bush in virtually any Southern state except Florida. The best Democrats can probably hope for in the South next year is a presidential nominee competitive enough not to sink their other candidates. And even that may prove beyond their reach.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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