Kerry Campaign Shifts Its Focus to Southwest

Times Staff Writer

When John Kerry arrives in Reno today for his sixth visit to Nevada this year, he will underscore a dramatic shift in the geography of the race for the White House.

Kerry, in a virtually unprecedented move for a Democrat, is relying more on the West than the South in his plan to reach the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Once the party of the “Solid South,” Democrats this year are not actively contesting any state in the region except Florida in the presidential campaign. Instead, Kerry has shifted his attention west, mounting major efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and, at one point, Arizona.

“In the 1980s and the 1990s, the Holy Grail was to make the Democratic Party competitive in the South again,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a political action committee that supports centrist party officials. “Now the Southwest is a vital, new part of the Democratic strategy.”

This shift may reflect equal parts opportunity and weakness.

Democrats see opportunity across the Southwest in its growing Latino population and signs that the region’s moderate suburbanites may be warming to the party’s stances on social issues.


But Republicans see Kerry’s emphasis on the Southwest -- particularly the GOP-leaning states of Colorado and Arizona -- as a measure of his limited options for reaching 270 electoral votes while writing off virtually every Southern state.

“They are focusing on it out of necessity,” said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President Bush’s reelection campaign. “Their map is shrinking.”

The largest concentration of battlegrounds in the 2004 campaign -- as in most recent presidential races -- remains a group of states in the industrial heartland whose demographic diversity denies either side a decisive advantage.

But the next tier of contested states has conspicuously shifted from the South toward the Southwest. Kerry may be the first Democratic presidential nominee who hopes to win in November without seriously contesting any Southern state except Florida -- which politically has more in common with New Jersey than Georgia or Alabama.

“This has never happened before -- never,” said Ralph Reed, the Georgia-based Southeastern chairman for Bush’s campaign.

Democratic nominees have almost always targeted at least some Southern states. As recently as 2000, Gore demonstrated his commitment to competing in the South by buying television advertisements in October in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana as well as Florida, according to ad tracking conducted for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Yet Gore, a Southern Baptist, still lost to Bush in all 11 states of the Old Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. Those 13 states provided Bush 60% of his 271 electoral votes.

To some Democrats, Gore’s narrow electoral college defeat showed the difficulty of winning the White House without capturing any Southern ground; to others, it demonstrated that the party could reach a majority without the South if it made small gains elsewhere.

Kerry and his aides began the general election pledging to recapture some Southern states -- or at least contest them seriously. His campaign and the Democratic National Committee bought television time in North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Louisiana. And Kerry’s selection of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate seemed designed, in part, to broaden the ticket’s appeal in the South.

But Kerry and the DNC have not been on the air with ads in North Carolina since July, Louisiana since August, and Arkansas and Virginia since early September, according to the ad tracking.

Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor, said the campaign was still considering a final push in either Arkansas or North Carolina. But for all practical purposes, analysts say, Kerry appears to have conceded 141 electoral college votes across the region to Bush, still contesting only the 27 in Florida.

“It’s a replay of the 2000 election, where except for Florida the presidential contest wasn’t really close in any of the Southern states,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of several books on Southern politics. As his fallback if he falls short in some of the Midwest’s swing states, such as Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, Kerry increasingly has looked to the Southwest.

In recent years, many top Democratic strategists have hoped that the growth of the Southwest’s Latino population would gradually strengthen Democratic prospects in the region. But, like a baseball team forced to call up a promising young prospect more quickly than it expected, Democrats are banking on the area more than party leaders anticipated.

“The potential opportunities [in the Southwest] just looked better than some of the [Southern] states where we had previously advertised,” Devine said.

Kerry hasn’t been seen in the South in months, but after his visit to Reno, he has stops scheduled Saturday in Colorado and New Mexico.

Before pulling the plug, Democrats spent about $1.9 million on television ads in North Carolina and Virginia, and a little more than $1 million in Arkansas and Louisiana, according to TNSMI/CMAG.

By contrast, Kerry has already spent $7.8 million on ads in Nevada, $6.6 million in Colorado and $6 million in New Mexico and Arizona, TNSMI/CMAG found. Gore only advertised in Nevada and New Mexico, and at just a small fraction of Kerry’s levels.

In New Mexico, which Gore carried by just 366 votes, the latest polls generally show Kerry clinging to a lead, albeit one within the margin of error.

In Nevada, Democrats have been encouraged by an intense voter registration drive that erased the traditional GOP lead on the rolls. But polls have generally shown Bush holding a narrow advantage there. Colorado has remained close, though Republicans maintain a clear edge in voter registration and the most recent public surveys consistently show Bush ahead.

The GOP also retains a significant lead in voter registration in Arizona, and the Democrats pulled their advertising from the state after polls indicated Kerry’s chances looked increasingly slim.

Rosenberg’s group, the New Democrat Network, has sought to improve his party’s prospects in the Southwest by financing an unprecedented barrage of Spanish-language television ads.

Other analysts in both parties, though, note that the number of Latinos registering to vote still lags well behind their increase in population, blunting their effect on election day.

Another potential strength for Kerry in the Southwest, Rosenberg thinks, is that the religiously infused social conservatism that has made Bush so formidable in the South is weakening him with Southwest voters who prefer limited government involvement in both the economy and their private lives.

“George Bush’s breed of conservatism is playing very, very well among social conservatives -- but among more libertarian conservatives, this isn’t playing that well,” Rosenberg said.

But while Bush’s social conservatism may draw a mixed response across the Southwest, his small-government, low-tax message generally strikes a responsive chord.

Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, now co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver, agrees with Rosenberg that the Southern-style social conservatism ascendant in the GOP could prove a boon for Democrats in the Southwest. But he doesn’t believe the change will come fast enough to tilt Colorado this year.

The “Massachusetts liberal” tag Bush has applied to Kerry “still has some sting to it” in the Southwest, Lamm said. That, he said, makes it hard for him to see Kerry winning Colorado.

Similarly, Arizona-based Republican consultant Jay Heiler said the confidence that voters in the state have in Bush’s national security credentials has made it an implausible target for Kerry.

“The president is so much stronger than Kerry in the minds of the Arizona electorate on ... national security issues that Kerry has always had a big disadvantage here,” Heiler said.

But even if Kerry falls short in the Southwest in November’s vote, the senator has set the right direction for his party by intensifying its focus on the rapidly growing Southwest states, said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. Many Democratic-leaning states, he noted, have lost electoral college votes in recent decades as population has increased more quickly elsewhere.

“It is the first time in a generation ... that Democrats are gaining strength in a growing part of the country,” Maslin said.