Many Southern Democrats Nervous About Party's 2004 Liberal Line Up

That rumble echoing from the South is the collective sound of worried Democratic leaders who fear their party will lose again in 2004 if it nominates another Michael Dukakis liberal for President.

The six, mostly Northern, liberal Democratic presidential contenders are getting a lot of favorable attention in the national news media lately. But in the more conservative South and Southwest, party leaders are complaining. They say that the decidedly left-wing cast of candidates will not play well in their region in a general election if they run as ideological clones of Mondale, Dukakis or Gore.

Among the current six-pack, Sen. John Kerry (D.- Mass.), Sen. John Edwards (D.- N.C.), Rep. Dick Gephardt (D.- Mo.), former Gov. Howard Dean (D.-Vt.), and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton are all clearly left-of-center in their political views.

Only Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.), former chairman of the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)-who likes school choice plans, Social Security investment accounts and capital gains tax cuts-is out of step with this crew.

No one in the party wants to publicly critique the candidates just yet, but if you ask some state chairs how a liberal nominee would do in their state, the answer is "not good." Especially in the South where Gore did not carry a single state.

"If they truly are from the liberal wing and if they are perceived as being too far left, and their message comes across that way, yes, they will have a problem in the South," said Ron Oliver, the Democratic state chairman in Arkansas.

"Down here, the gun issue is always important. The Democratic nominee is going to have to demonstrate a sensitivity to the right of the people to own guns. That’s one of the things that hurt Gore," he told me.

The Democratic nominee will have to be tough on national security, Oliver said, which includes a looming war in Iraq, opposed by Dean and Sharpton and questioned by Kerry and Edwards.

"You couldn’t [win in the South] if [you] opposed a war in Iraq," he said.

Bill Farmer, who stepped down this month as Tennessee Democratic chair, is also concerned. "Obviously, the Southern states are more conservative and that is a factor to be looked at by any of the candidates," he said.

"They have to come up with-I hate to use the word-a Southern strategy," he said.

Mississippi Chairman Rickey Cole doesn’t mince words, either: "There are many people in this part of the country who consider liberal to be a four-letter word. We can’t appear to be a captive of the loony left."

"To be competitive in the South, our candidates are going to have to be sensitive to the hot-button issues that have hurt our candidates in the past," he said.

He mentions gun control, but also issues such as religion. "Sometimes our national candidates and the national party have had an image of being hostile to people of faith."

It isn’t just Southern Democrats who cringe at running another knee-jerk liberal for President. Democrats in the Southwest are worried, too.

If Democrats choose an ideological liberal in 2004, "I think it will be a problem in Arizona," said Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson. "The voters are not looking for extremes. They want a pragmatic approach."

However, these and other state party chairmen made it clear that they are not necessarily opposed to liberals like Kerry, who has a near-100% Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) voting record, or Edwards, who is close to that. In fact, both have made strong impressions on party leaders in their early forays in the South. Several chairmen told me they were gaining the most support from their party’s grass roots.

What worries these Democrats is their message. Many believe that the polarizing, class warfare, "us against them" theme that Gore used in 2000 led to his defeat. One chairman said that "you rarely heard Bill Clinton pit the rich against other income groups."

But in the battle over President Bush’s tax cut plan, even Edwards, who is counting on his Southern roots to help him win the nomination, plays on class warfare as hard as any Northeast liberal. He peppers his attacks on the Bush plan with the words "rich and wealthy" as many times as Mondale did in his losing 1984 campaign.

What these and other state Democratic leaders in the South and West are saying is simply this: Each time the Democrats nominated a candidate of the left-Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis and Gore-they lost.

There’s a message there somewhere.