Democrats' Neglect Perplexes Southerners

South Carolina was good to native son John Edwards.

Edwards, who was born in Seneca, S.C., won the state's primary by a double-digit margin.

"You said that the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of bringing people down," the North Carolina senator told cheering supporters at a victory party at a Columbia restaurant Tuesday night. "And, today, we said clearly to the American people that in our country, our American, everything is possible."

But with the exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the other candidates who won votes here Tuesday night celebrated elsewhere. In fact, for most of this week, they abandoned the Palmetto State, once thought of as an important primary battleground.

Their absence is especially odd if one buys what Edwards says, that the South Carolina primary "is a head-to-head contest on who can compete in the South, who can win rural voters, and who can do well with African-American voters."

John Kerry came in second here, which he said before results were final was "extraordinary, given how little I was able to be there."

But Southern Democratic leaders wonder why Kerry was only "able" to visit South Carolina twice since his campaign kickoff in Charleston last September. With momentum from his early victories and endorsements from the state's one Democratic senator, Fritz Hollings, and its only black congressman, Jim Clyburn, many thought the Massachusetts senator could have won here if he'd spent more time in the state.

Richard Harpootlian, the former chairman. of the South Carolina Democratic Party, fears Kerry's absence may signify that national Democrats plan on writing off the region. That, he says, would be a mistake.

"If this is a precursor of what's going to happen in November, then all this has just been a huge charade," Harpootlian said of the absence of five of the seven Democratic presidential candidates. "The nominee needs to demonstrate a commitment to come to the South. They can win states in the South. It's just absolutely absurd. Somebody in Washington has got a phobia about the South."

And that, according to Southern historian Dan Carter, a professor at the University of South Carolina, aggravates old wounds.

"Southerners are hypersensitive," Carter said. "You have this long history of feeling as though the Yankees are out to get us, they're looking down their nose at us. And Kerry's disappearance from South Carolina will seem to some voters as a kind of sign of disrespect."

Kerry and ‘The Mistake of Looking South’

This was perhaps worsened by Kerry's recent comments in New Hampshire that a Democrat can win the White House without one Southern state. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," Kerry said at a Dartmouth College forum three days before the New Hampshire primary. He went on to describe how former Vice President Al Gore would have been president without winning one Southern state if only he'd won Ohio, West Virginia or New Hampshire.

This upset some Southern Democrats, already sensitive to what many perceived to be Gore's giving up on competing seriously in every Southern state except for Florida in his 2000 race against George W. Bush.

"Anyone who would intentionally take the position that the South is not a valuable part of a strategy to become president is playing his cards foolishly," said South Carolina state Rep. Joe Neal, a former chairman of the state legislative black caucus.

Strategists elsewhere, however, increasingly argue that the South is a waste of Democrats' time. "The South is no longer the swing region it was for the last four decades," said Thomas Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It swung. It's a Republican landlock."

The Southern Strategy

That trend began back in 1968 when Richard Nixon began to implement his so-called Southern strategy, which his political aide Kevin Phillips described as "an ideological bid for the anti-civil-rights South."

"Substantial Negro support is not necessary to national Republican victory," Phillips wrote in his 1969 book, Emergence of a Republican Majority. "The GOP can build a winning coalition without Negro votes. Indeed, Negro-Democratic mutual identification was a major source of Democratic loss, and Republican Party or American Independent Party profit, in many sections of the country." Segregationist former Alabama Gov. George Wallace was the American Independent Party's 1968 presidential candidate.

Many Democrats in Washington argue the strategy has worked, and they have written off the South, arguing resources would be better spent in Southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, with their growing population of Democratic-leaning Latinos.

But it is a disputed strategy "We've never elected a Democrat president without winning at least five Southern states," Edwards told ABCNEWS.

Taking Black Voters for Granted?

One reason for Democratic wins in the South: 55 percent of the nation's black population lives here. But nowadays, many African-Americans feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

"There should be more done with the black community and the Democratic Party instead of just around election time," Neshanda Walters told ABCNEWS on Sunday in the lobby of the Bible Way Baptist Church in Columbia while her pastor was endorsing Edwards. "You know, showing up here at our church with a bazillion cameras."

Added Columbia resident Jamison Givins, "I don't feel that the candidates should take for granted the feelings of Southern black Democrats."

Sharpton made this a key part of his message here. Although he finished a distant third in the primary; his theme seemed to resonate.

"They have the audacity to say — I mean the unmitigated gall to say — 'Will Sharpton take some of somebody else's black votes,' like y'all are owned by people," Sharpton told parishioners at a country church in Aiken, S.C., on Sunday.

Democats lose elections by not trying harder to bring more blacks into the process, Sharpton told ABCNEWS. "The numbers of African-Americans in Georgia, in South Carolina and Alabama is the margin of victory," he said. "But a lot of candidates don't want to talk to them."

Why?

"I think some of it is a disconnect and some of it is just arrogance," he said.

But it may also be the social liberalism of national Democrats. While Southern blacks are primarily concerned about the economy, they hold conservative views on other matters, like abortion, gay and lesbian rights and the death penalty. Seventy-five percent of black voters in South Carolina are evangelical Christians, according to a state party survey.

Repercussions Beyond the Region

But South Carolina's high unemployment rate weighs heavily here, so some argue that creates an opening for the Democratic message to both black and white Southerners, with repercussions beyond the presidency if Democrats don't even try to reach them

Five Southern Democrats are retiring from the Senate this year in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. "Without a strong Democratic effort in the region, you could very easily end up with four or five Republicans replacing them," Carter said.

And there is another consequence — beyond the region. Unlike most of the Democratic presidential candidates, President Bush will visit South Carolina this week. If by the fall he feels he has his Southern conservative base sewn up — and no Democratic competition in Dixie — he can campaign elsewhere as more of a moderate.

"In the short run, it'll be a disaster [for Democrats]," Carter said, "because they'll allow the Republican Party to run a campaign which is more elevated, which doesn't use social wedge issues as much in the South."

It would be a grand irony if — fearing they're too liberal to win the South — Democrats take actions that allow President Bush to seem less conservative himself.