Winning the White House would be far easier for John Kerry if he could carry even one Southern state, something Al Gore did not do in 2000.
Democratic leaders in Boston for the party’s national convention point to two states, Tennessee and Louisiana, as ones where investments by the Kerry campaign could pay off on Nov. 2.
Edwards will be demonstrating Kerry’s commitment to win in the South by campaigning in Louisiana next Tuesday.
The states of the Old Confederacy have a total of 153 electoral votes, nearly 60 percent of the number needed to win the presidency.
Even the most loyal Democrats agree that some Southern states, such as Mississippi, are out of Kerry’s reach.
But Tennessee’s Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, told MSNBC.com Thursday that Kerry could win the state’s 11 electoral votes.
Gore lost the state by more than 80,000 votes in 2000.
Bredesen said of Kerry in this fall’s campaign, “If he wants to win Tennessee, he’s got to convince Tennesseans that they’re important to him and that he wants their vote. All other things being equal, Republicans are going to win in Tennessee, but I think there’s enough unease out there” about the federal budget deficits and potential job losses, that Kerry could exploit it.
While admitting it will be an uphill climb for Kerry to win the state, Bredesen added, “I certainly would not be astonished if he could win it. And if he wins Tennessee, I think he‘ll win the election.”
Bredesen said, that come October, he wants to see Kerry campaigning in Tennessee. “He’s going to have some issues to deal with in Tennessee — he’s got a liberal voting record, he is certainly more liberal than the average Democrat in Tennessee,” Bredesen acknowledged.
“But I think when that is the case, you’ve got to step forward, you’ve got to explain why you feel about things the way you do, you can’t just gloss over them.”
As for Tennessee voters' view of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Bredesen said, “I think there is gnawing concern about it, but I don’t think that concern necessarily reflects ill on George Bush specifically. … You can’t just simply assume that if people have gnawing doubts about the war, it translates necessarily into a vote against George Bush.”
Need for specifics
Bredesen said that while he liked the speech John Edwards delivered Wednesday night, “I was also left with this feeling of ‘that is stuff you really have got to round out.’ It is one thing to say, ‘All Americans need to have health care,’ but no one has figured out how to do that yet.” Bredesen wants Kerry “to put some more specifics on the table.”
To establish credibility on fiscal issues, Kerry must give voters “real solutions, not just populist rhetoric versus conservative rhetoric,” Bredesen said.
Kerry’s proposed tax increase on the top two percent of income earners is not enough to establish his fiscal bona fides, he added. “I’d like to hear something more,” he said.
With approval ratings of nearly 80 percent and a reputation for managerial competence, Bredesen himself could be an asset alongside Kerry on the campaign trail. Elected in 2002 and inheriting a dire fiscal situation, Bredesen cut state spending and imposed budget disciple, resulting in an improved state bond rating by Standard & Poors.
Downstream from Tennessee is the other potential Southern battleground, Louisiana, which Bush carried by more than 135,000 votes in 2000.
Encouraging signs here for the Democrats: Sen. Mary Landrieu prevailed in a bare-knuckles brawl over Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell in the 2002 election and just last year Democrat Kathleen Blanco defeated Republican Bobby Jindal, 52 percent to 48 percent.
Gave no quarter
Asked by MSNBC.com Thursday what lesson Democrats could apply from her victory, Landrieu said, “We gave no quarter when they attacked — and they attacked viciously, personally. Every time they punched, we punched back twice as hard.”
One of her core messages to voters in 2002, Landrieu said: “You might agree with the president, but you need a senator who can always put Louisiana interests first.”
Obviously, Kerry will need to take a different tack this fall than did Landrieu, but she said outside observers shouldn’t assume that Louisiana voters will support Bush because he is more sympathetic to the oil and gas industries that are major employers in the state. Republicans emphasize that Bush supports opening the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a position Louisiana legislators support.
Kerry led an April 2002 filibuster to defeat ANWR drilling.
Asked to comment, Landrieu warms to her subject: “The important thing for people in Louisiana to know is that regardless of the fact that Kerry’s position may be different from some in Louisiana on ANWR, John Kerry is not anti-oil and gas. ... President Bush himself is opposed to drilling off Florida’s coast — forget Alaska! We have supposedly a pro-energy, pro-drilling president who just talk and talks and talks about domestic production, but because his brother is the Republican governor of Florida, won’t use any of his political muscle to get something done. Forget this ‘John Kerry doesn’t understand about energy policy’ argument; George Bush needs a few lessons in energy policy.”
Along with energy policy, a decisive factor in Louisiana is the black electorate.
Compared with Tennessee, where less than 15 percent of voters are black, in Louisiana about one-third of the electorate is black.
Formula for success
Rep. William Jefferson, the state’s leading black official, recalled that in 1992 Bill Clinton got about 410,000 African-American votes in Louisiana, in addition to 400,000 white votes, enough to carry the state.
Jefferson said the formula for Kerry to win Louisiana is to carry 90 percent or more of black voters, and not much less than 40 percent of white voters.
Jefferson said the Kerry campaign must not make the mistake Gore strategists made in 2000 of giving up on the state in October.
“Our state has more than a chance of being in play,” Jefferson insisted at breakfast Thursday for the Louisiana delegation. “Our state is in play. And it is up to John Kerry to recognize that.”
Jefferson also suggested that the Kerry campaign should not rely on radio ads with the generic James Earl Jones “voice of God” baritone to speak to Louisiana voters.
Instead, the radio ad for Monroe, La., for instance, should be taped by Charles Jones, a prominent local Democratic state senator. “Local folks need to be on the radio saying stuff about John Kerry, vouching for him, validating him,” he said.
Jefferson said no new-fangled, high tech strategies were needed in Louisiana. “You’ve got the experts you need in every little town, in every little parish in Louisiana, they know how to win,” Jefferson said.
But he added that New Orleans will be a key. “You have to win big where you have the most votes. Kerry needs to do well in New Orleans and needs a huge African-American turnout there. Kerry also needs to do well above Interstate 10 with white voters.”
Asked for a bellwether, Democratic Party state chairman Mike Skinner said that if Kerry carries Calcasieu Parish, on the border with Texas, he will carry the state.
Bush carried Calcasieu Parish in 2000 by 4,167; Landrieu carried it two years later by 3,372.
Kerry has campaigned in Louisiana three times in the last two months. “I’m sure he’ll be back,” Skinner said.