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Democrats Need a Red-Blooded Candidate to Stanch Losses

Maybe Democrats will find a way to argue about the reason for the sweep by President Bush and congressional Republicans last week. But the answer, and the lesson, appears about as clear as these things ever get: The Democrats need to widen the electoral battlefield.

In the congressional and presidential races, Democrats maintained the core of their support in the blue states that Al Gore won in 2000. But at both levels, the Democrats made scant headway in the red states Bush won last time.

That left Sen. John F. Kerry with too narrow a margin of error for reaching 270 electoral college votes and congressional Democrats with too few options for reversing the GOP majority. It also allowed Bush, far more than Kerry, to take the offense and erode the edges of the other side’s coalition.

“We were not pressuring them in as many places as they were pressuring us,” said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry’s deputy campaign manager. “We were never really in play in a whole bunch of states Bush had won four years ago, and he was pushing us hard in states we won four years ago.”

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From this pattern, the lesson seems unavoidable. Democrats need a nominee who can effectively compete for more of the country than Kerry did -- especially socially conservative regions such as the South and rural Midwest. That would give the Democrats more paths to an electoral college majority. A nominee with more appeal in the red states might also create a climate that enables the party to seriously contest more House and Senate seats.

The red and blue map of electoral results vividly captures the point. If Bush, as is likely, holds his lead in New Mexico, Kerry would have been reduced to three enclaves: the Northeast and New England, the upper Midwest (where he held Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and the West Coast.

Bush (again pending New Mexico) won literally everything else across the giant L that runs from the mountain states and Great Plains through the South. If you stayed south of Illinois, you could drive from California to Pennsylvania without crossing a state, and conceivably a county, that Kerry carried.

That dominating performance across the heartland -- mirrored in the congressional results -- put weight behind the judgment of Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, when he said: “It’s no longer a 49-49 country; it’s 51-48 and maybe a little bit better” for Republicans.

If there’s any solace for Democrats, it’s that Bush hasn’t built a coalition so broad that it’s out of reach. The 29 states that Bush has carried both times equal 274 electoral college votes. The 18 Gore states that Kerry won plus the District of Columbia provide a base of 248 electoral college votes. Indeed, Democrats have now carried those 18 states in four consecutive elections. The party wouldn’t need to move much from red to blue to squeeze out its own narrow majority in 2008.

But that will require a nominee who is able to expand the playing field. As a nominee, Kerry did many things well. But as a Massachusetts senator with a generally liberal voting record, especially on social issues, he labored to get off the runway in the states Bush carried last time.

Kerry reached 48% of the vote in just three of those states: New Hampshire (the sole state Kerry recaptured), Ohio and Nevada. In 21 of the 29 Bush 2000 states, Kerry was held to 43% of the vote or less.

Partly because his own base was so strong, Bush was able to mount challenges for more Democratic terrain. Bush gained 48% or more in six states that Gore carried. Although Bush still fell well short in the Northeast, he significantly improved his performance in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Only in five of the 18 Gore 2000 states was Bush held to 43% or less.

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In some of those states (such as those in the Northeast), Bush’s showing may be a post-Sept. 11 high point for the GOP. But overall, the numbers should warn Democrats that unless they can force Republicans to spend more time and money defending their strongholds, the GOP will continue to encroach on their base.

In the battle for Congress, the Democrats’ need to expand into red territory is even more urgent. Democrats control about three-fourths of the Senate seats and three-fifths of the House seats in the states won by Gore and Kerry.

That’s about the same percentage Republicans control in the states Bush won twice.

But because Bush won more states, that leaves the Democrats with too narrow a base, especially in the Senate, which magnifies the influence of the Republican-leaning small states. Without a bigger battlefield, the Democrats are doomed to lasting minority status in Congress.

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For Democrats, these two problems are intertwined. Democrats probably can’t regain much congressional ground in the red states until they elect a president who can improve the party’s image there. The need is greatest in the South, where the GOP’s crushing, 18-seat advantage in the Senate and 40-seat spread in the House provide the margins of majority. Reversing the solidifying Republican hold on the South and the other red states won’t be easy for the Democrats under any circumstance. But it probably will be impossible without a candidate who has broader regional appeal than Kerry.

That imperative seems certain to raise the 2008 profile of Democrats who have won elections in regions the party needs to put back into play -- such as governors Tom Vilsack of Iowa (the rural Midwest), Bill Richardson of New Mexico (the desert Southwest) and especially Mark R. Warner of Virginia (the South).

Kerry ran admirably against a formidable incumbent during wartime. But the clearest lesson of his candidacy is that Democrats may be unable to win the White House unless they pick a nominee from outside their natural geographic base.

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

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