Bob Moser

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Why the Democrats Are Winning Back the South

Ed. Note: With the latest wave of Democratic House and Senate victories and Obama's wins in the South, this excerpt from Bob Moser's book gives vital background on the new climate in a formerly Republican stronghold.

This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Texas Observer editor Bob Moser's Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority (Times Books, 2008).


There is a party for Caesar, a party for Pompey, but no party for Rome."
-- TOM WATSON, Georgia populist & Democratic senator




The tale of how Republicans "won" the South, and why Democrats gave it up, has been ironed out into a quintessentially American fable of good and evil and reduced to its satisfying essence for retelling every four years, when Democratic strategists and media pundits begin their ritual debate about whether, and how, Democrats should try to reclaim a slice of Dixie with a Southern strategy of their own.



The legend goes like this: The Democratic Party became the unity party of white Southerners -- a political extension of the Confederate States of America -- after the Civil War. (True enough.) From Appomattox through the civil rights movement, the national Democratic Party was really two parties, with an enlightened Northern wing and a Southern wing wallowing in the muck of benighted traditionalism. (The exaggerations begin.) The "good Democrats" of the North swallowed hard and accommodated their Dixie cousins for the very practical reason that without their "solid South" vote in nearly every presidential contest, they would not have been contests. (Right.) Even Franklin D. Roosevelt put up with the racist demagogues of the Southern leadership, the Bilbos and Vardamans and Talmadges, because of political expediency. (Right again.) And even though white Southerners didn't have a liberal bone in their bodies, they kept making an X in the boxes next to Democratic presidential candidates' names. (Well …)

But "with a stroke of the pen," as the saying always goes, the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, intrepidly signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and brought a sudden and irrevocable end to the Democrats' solid South. Why, even LBJ himself said so; in a quote that has become an inextricable part of the fable, the president worried out loud to one of his aides, the future journalist Bill Moyers, that he had "delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."



By doing the right thing, we are told, the Democratic Party sacrificed Dixie and purified its sullied soul at last. And as soon as Johnson's pen did its work, the legend continues, Republicans were ready to pounce. With the brilliant Southern strategy brewed to wicked perfection by Richard Nixon and his henchmen, the die was cast. After a quick post-Watergate blip, with Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, the popular presidency of Ronald Reagan and the ascendance of religious right politics cemented the Republicans' new solid South. While the region continued to grow in prosperity -- thanks, of course, to its supposedly militant anti-unionism and the resulting abundance of cheap labor that big business loves -- the South remained what it had always been: backward, xenophobic, racist, and ignorantly susceptible to the rankest emotional appeals to Jesus, miscegenation, and militarism. The only difference was that the parties had switched places, with the Democrats laid as low as the sad old Southern Republicans once were. If anybody needed fresh proof of that, it came along in the 2000 election, when even a Tennessee Democrat, Al Gore, could not break through the brick wall of Caucasian conservatism to win a single state in Dixie. "The South is no longer the swing region," proclaimed political science professor and pundit Thomas Schaller, author of a "non-Southern" manifesto published in 2006 called Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. "It has swung."

That's the story, and a sweet one it is for both Republicans and -- in a perverse way -- blue state Democrats. For Republicans, this neat little fiction confirms their superior command of political strategy -- the canny ruthlessness with which they appropriated white backlash against '60s liberalism, then rode the angry tide of evangelical politics in the '80s. It also offers them the charming promise of starting every presidential election with one-third (and climbing) of the country's electoral votes already sewn up. Meanwhile, Democrats outside the South -- those who actually believe this Disneyesque version of political history -- can recount the legend and view themselves, and their party, as martyrs for racial justice. The party's sad record in national politics, post-LBJ, has indeed been a cross to bear. But such is the price of righteousness.

But nobody told Southerners they weren't supposed to be Democrats anymore. During the 2006 midterm elections, Gallup pollsters discovered that more folks still said they were Democrats than Republicans in all but three Southern states -- Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi. In half of the South, it wasn't even close: Democrats led by more than 10 percentage points in six Southern states. It's not just the partisan leanings of Southerners that confound the solid South myths. Southerners are more conservative only if you winnow down American politics to cultural or "moral" issues alone. Southerners still tack the furthest right on gay marriage and abortion and still lead the nation in churchgoing. They also back withdrawal from Iraq and strongly favor progressive populist economic policies -- more spending on social welfare, stronger environmental and business regulations, universal health care -- that are anathema to the GOP and, in many cases, markedly to the left of the national Democratic leadership.

But you'd never know that by listening to the conventional wisdom. The South has, in the popular mind, always been "solid" -- solidly white, solidly conservative, solidly fundamentalist, and of course, solidly racist. But never solidly populist -- and that is where the Democrats made their mistake.


The Republicans' Southern surge has been picked apart and celebrated by scores of political scientists and pundits. But just as much as the GOP won the region with its appeals to suburbanites and cultural traditionalists, the Democratic Party lost it by failing to build on its new black base. The story of how, and why, the Democrats surrendered Dixie is well worth chewing over. Segregationist whites did, unquestionably, begin defecting in large numbers to the formerly hated "cocktail party" in the wake of the civil rights movement. But they were outnumbered by the massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Between the midterm elections of 1966 and 1970, more than 1.7 million African Americans registered to vote, spiking the region-wide percentage of registered blacks to nearly 60 percent. At the same time, white Southerners' racial attitudes were, in historian Matthew Lassiter's terms, undergoing one of the "most pronounced shifts in the history of opinion polling." In a May 1970 Gallup Poll, for example, only 16 percent of white parents in the South opposed sending their children to schools with a small number of black students -- compared to 61 percent in 1963. In the North, meanwhile, white support for a federal role in school integration dropped from 47 percent in 1966 to 21 percent in 1976.

Liberals had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new Democratic coalition of blacks, Latinos, and moderate and progressive whites. Even as Nixon swept Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs. While Harry Dent, the archsegregationist and Strom Thurmond crony who helped mastermind Nixon's Southern strategy, was roostering about the new "Solid Republican South," the eleven former Confederate states had already elected 665 blacks to local and state offices. (Nowadays, more than two-thirds of the nation's black elected officials are Southern.) Even more strikingly, every Southern state but Texas ("conservative Democrat" Preston Smith) and Alabama (stuck with George Wallace) had elected a moderate-to-progressive governor calling for racial reconciliation and "lift-all-boats" economic reforms.

In Florida, young governor Reubin Askew was hailing the emergence of a "humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge." In Arkansas, Democratic governor Dale Bumpers was promoting a "future … shaped and shared by all Arkansans -- old and young, black and white, rich and poor." South Carolina's new-breed Democratic governor, John C. West, pledged a "color-blind" administration and followed through by immediately appointing a black adviser to a top staff position, a first in that state.

"The era of defiance is behind us," announced Virginia's new governor, Linwood Holton -- a moderate Republican, no less. Even Wallace, re-elected in 1970, was whistling a new tune -- postelection, of course -- that was most certainly not "Dixie." Eight years after his "segregation forever" address, Wallace delivered a startlingly different inaugural message: "Our state government is for all, so let us join together, for Alabama belongs to all of us -- black and white, young and old, rich and poor alike."

"We in the South have an exciting opportunity," wrote Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1972, "to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry, and disease." One of the giddiest signs of progress had come in Georgia two years earlier, when voters had replaced Democratic governor Lester Maddox, a clownish Wallace wannabe who had gained statewide fame by chasing blacks away from his fried-chicken restaurant with an axe, with the relatively liberal Jimmy Carter.

Carter had run a classic populist campaign, trying his damnedest to shake every hand in the state. In a precursor to his 1976 grassroots presidential campaign, he tallied some 1,800 speeches to small-town civic groups, schools, and agriculture associations, inveighing against Georgia's entrenched power brokers and big-money interests. Carter made one campaign gesture to the old-line white Democrats, coming out against "forced busing" to integrate schools. But he steered clear of demagoguing on race. And on his inaugural day in 1971, surrounded by monuments to both Confederate soldiers and legendary bigots like Eugene Talmadge ("The Negro belongs to an inferior race"), Carter sounded a matter-of-fact clarion call that echoed across Dixie: "I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over."

When a near-solid South -- all but Virginia -- propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it looked as though the Democratic dream could, just maybe, become a reality. After Carter accepted the nomination, the strains of "We Shall Overcome" echoed around New York's Madison Square Garden as an unlikely smorgasbord of Democratic luminaries crowded the stage, singing and swaying. Up there with Carter were Coretta Scott King, Ted Kennedy, congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, and -- could it be? Yep, singing right along -- a wheelchair-bound George Wallace. Old wounds were binding. Tears were flowing, especially among the Southern delegations. As Time magazine had declared earlier in that first post-Jim Crow decade, "the region is abandoning the fateful uniqueness that has retarded its development and estranged its people." A progressive, post-Jim Crow South, at long last, was announcing its arrival.

But Carter's star-crossed presidency, hampered by stagflation and doomed by Iranian hostage taking, failed to live up to its promise on nearly every count. Carter's economic policies strayed far from the progressive populism he had championed back home. Rather than reinvigorating -- or reinventing -- the New Deal spirit that had brought together blacks and whites in the South (however partially and tenuously), Carter's term in office signaled the start of the Democratic Party's slide toward a feckless, defensive posture of "moderation."

Meanwhile, a right-wing political revival among evangelical Christians was delivering another chunk of traditional Southern Democrats into the Republican camp. There was more than a touch of irony in this, of course, since Carter had been America's first "born-again" president, a Sunday school teacher throughout his adult life. But the Deep South Baptist lost evangelical votes in droves in 1980 to the Moral Majority's new hero: Hollywood actor, divorc, former union president, and faithful non-churchgoer Ronald Reagan.

The Republicans' Southern populism -- with its exclusive focus on cultural wedges and distractions -- had left the Democrats an opening: Translate the South's economic populist tradition into a forward-looking, class-based politics with broad appeal across the races. And run, as Southern Democrats have continued to do on the state and local levels, on progressive "good-government" issues -- better schools, better roads, better jobs. While Republicans had latched on to the fearmongering, "watch-out-for-Washington" style of traditional Southern populism, the Democrats had a chance to adapt the equally appealing, vote-getting substance of economic populism. Instead, they ran from it.

"The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield," lamented journalist John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America. "The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity."


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A Big Win for Obama and the South

When I was growing up in North Carolina, our neighbor South Carolina played an important role in our lives -- giving us something to look down on. We fell for too many racist demagogues through the years (y'all remember Jesse Helms?), but we weren't always run by them. We didn't have no rebel flag flying over our statehouse. We elected a racially moderate governor at the height of the civil-rights backlash in 1960. It was something to say for ourselves, and we appreciated South Carolina's making us look relatively all right.

After Saturday's primary, this Tar Heel can do nothing but offer a big, deep bow to the Democrats of South Carolina. Not because I was particularly rooting for Barack Obama over John Edwards -- but because of these fine folks' rejection of the Clintons' gutter politics. The majority of white Democrats, in a state where the Democratic Party was so long the organized mob enforcing Jim Crow, repelled the Clinton campaign's unspeakably vile attempt to paint Barack Obama as some kind of coke-dealing, slumlord-pimping cousin of Al Sharpton -- and their equally vile assumption that Deep South whites, whether they're Democratic or Republican, can be manipulated by coded racial divisiveness in 2008 the way they were in 1968. Or, to add a bit more vileness to the mix, their assumption that they could make South Carolina blacks believe that one of their own would be "unelectable" by definition.

The overwhelming majority of South Carolina blacks rejected Senator Clinton in the most profound way: after first supporting her. She had a two-to-one lead on Obama among black South Carolinians at mid-campaign. Whites didn't reject her nearly so soundly -- about one-quarter of them voted for Obama, with the others pretty well split between Clinton and John Edwards. But half of under-30 white voters -- and there were a ton of them -- went for Obama.

What to make of the fact that a strong majority of whites in South Carolina opted against Clinton? Some of it is explained, no doubt, by the fact that South Carolina Democrats hear visceral evidence, most every day, from their Republican neighbors of how little chance the Senator from New York would have of getting a fair hearing in red-state America. Some, perhaps, is due to the fact that with Edwards in the race, white Democrats didn't "have" to vote for Obama to be anti-Clinton. (Though I know from talking to white South Carolina Democrats that many of them were split between Edwards, as a truer populist progressive, and Obama, as an inspirational bundle of potential. They weren't just deciding between the white candidates.)

It is also because the Clintons have come to embody, for many middle Americans, the moral and intellectual emptiness they seen in liberalism -- feel-good, stand-for-nothing, make-no-difference power players cloaking their lust for control in "feel-your-pain" platitudes. In South Carolina, the Clintons demonstrated just how much unfortunate truth there is to that exaggerated view of them (not liberals). And the white Democrats of South Carolina demonstrated precisely the opposite: that there is less truth than ever to the negative stereotypes about them.

The same is true -- albeit a little less so -- of white Republicans in the Deep South. The backlash generation is dying off, thank goodness. A new generation of voters -- not just young Southerners but also millions of Hispanic voters -- is rising. Where they will take Southern politics is anything but certain. But as South Carolinians showed tonight, it isn't going to be backward toward the days of Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater -- or Bill Clinton.

"That is not the America we believe in," Obama said tonight at a victory rally that surely made the eyes of many Southerners, black and white and otherwise, get misty. Seeing Obama cheered by so many hopeful South Carolinians -- and such a gorgeous mix of them, black and white and Hispanic, young and old, blue-collar and Blue State Liberal -- reminded me a little of the 1976 Democratic Convention, when both George Wallace and Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan were onstage, singing "We Shall Overcome" with Jimmy Carter and Friends. It felt like the New South -- a place no longer hopelessly perverted and held back by race -- was dawning in front of us, watching our TV sets.

That was a false dawn. Most Southerners, like most Americans, accepted school integration peacefully -- and then generally challenged themselves no further, retreating into the suburbs, and into the blithe assumption that since we no longer held black people unequal under the law, we were now "colorblind" and could stop worrying about it. The Republicans were superb at promoting this comforting notion. The Democrats have been lousy at contesting it.

Cheering Obama, of course, can be another self-congratulatory exercise for white people. It can become a kind of cheap expiation of our guilt -- whether we're white in Mississippi or white in California. But, especially because of the way the Clintons have racialized this campaign, a vote for Obama has now come to mean something else: a repudiation of at least some of the worst instincts that politicians have so long depended on us to manifest.

South Carolina-bashing has always been popular sport -- almost as much as Mississippi-bashing. During the war that was this primary, the pundits were often just as bleak as the Clintons about South Carolinians' potential to rise above. Bob Herbert of The New York Times wrote a scathing column about how "South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the State Capitol, is a disturbing example of how difficult it is for people of good will to dispose of the toxic layers of bigotry that have accumulated over several long centuries."

He had his reasons, some a bit silly (a statue of the insanely racist "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman at the statehouse) and some damningly substantive (the "Corridor of Shame" along I-95, with its breathtaking black poverty). And he said something awfully wise: "In South Carolina the Confederate flag is flying right out there in the open and Pitchfork Ben is on display for all to see. But in most other places, the hostility to blacks remains on the down-low. No one wants to deal with it."

Saturday night, it looked like at least a few South Carolinians -- and most of them who are white and under thirty -- had dealt with it. At least one small fraction of it. And as we used to say, in a different context, bless their hearts for that.

Romney Runs His Campaign Like Bush Runs His Presidency

In his surpassingly disingenuous campaign for president, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has borne only the most superficial resemblance to his dad, George, the late and former governor of Michigan -- much the same chiseled, coldly handsome visage, but starkly different political trajectories. Even if he didn't actually march with Martin Luther King, George Romney was the kind of old-style Republican who strongly backed civil rights, became an opponent of Vietnam, and got axed as Nixon's HUD Secretary for pushing to integrate the suburbs.

Maybe Mitt, like George W. Bush, has a daddy thing -- he's run his campaign, much as Bush has run his presidency, as though the only thing he had to learn from his father were negative lessons. George W. thought his father didn't push hard enough on Iraq and didn't get mean enough to win re-election and was bonkers to raise taxes, and by God, he didn't make those mistakes. Mitt saw his father tarred as a weirdo when he sought the 1968 nomination and -- at a time when he was the favorite for the nomination -- famously told a TV station, "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," and that he no longer supported the war.

Mitt's campaign has run in the opposite direction: hard right. But until Michigan, his archconservative makeover -- from the fellow who promised to out-gay Teddy Kennedy to the terror-warrior growling about doubling the size of Guantánamo -- hadn't been convincing enough to help him carry a primary. But Romney managed to convert his familiar name into a victory tonight that (at least temporarily) saved his candidacy -- and plunged the already muddled GOP race into a kind of beautiful chaos.

Beautiful, that is, for Democrats.

The oddest thing about Romney's win is that it came in a state in economic crisis -- a place that you'd have expected to overwhelmingly reject a man who made millions as a downsizing consultant. You'd also have expected former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who pushed his economic populism here harder than his Christian Dominionism, to fare better. But there is no explaining Republican voters this year. Not even to themselves.

Huckabee's "Christian Leader" campaign in Iowa, while it worked for the unusually conservative evangelical Republicans there, undoubtedly made most of the independents and evangelical Democrats who might have listened to his economic message in Michigan tune him out for good. And when he starts talking out of the other side of his mouth -- like John Edwards holding forth on "the Two Americas" -- as he did in Michigan, Huckabee clearly confuses a lot of evangelical Republicans as well. He's echoing what many of them have told pollsters for years -- that they're a lot less conservative on economic issues than on the moral wedges -- but it's still a drastically new message, and thus a bit suspicious-sounding. Huckabee's more pragmatic problem in Michigan, of course, was that he couldn't match Romney's months of organizing and advertising, or John McCain's familiarity with the folk he wooed successfully in 2000.

For whatever bizarre alchemy of reasons, Romney passed his do-or-die test in Michigan. On Saturday in South Carolina, Huckabee will be on the hot spot -- he's holding on to a slim lead over McCain there, with Romney not far behind. McCain needed the Michigan win to boost his South Carolina prospects, but Huckabee's once-rocketing campaign has stalled there as everywhere--and Romney has been running a strong third in the polls. If Huckabee gets his must-win in South Carolina, it will set up a critical four-way battle in Florida on January 29. Rudy Giuliani desperately needs the state to position himself for Tsunami Tuesday on February 5, but he's tied in the polls with McCain, with Romney and Huckabee in striking distance.

Democrats might have blown off Michigan, but they're certainly getting some goodies from the state. Romney's win makes it all the more likely that the Republicans' indecision will stretch well beyond February 5 -- all the way to the national convention. It will make terrific theater. And it will ensure that the ultimate Republican nominee -- whoever in the world it might be -- enters the fall campaign with a divided and perplexed party behind him.

Have Democrats Already Lost Florida?

Orlando -- On the final Friday of a parched and quarrelsome October, Florida Democrats were bumping around a hallway in Disney's faux-elegant Yacht and Beach Club Resort on the opening night of their state convention, perusing campaign items for sale (three Hillary buttons for $5!), sussing out the evening's schedule ("The progressives are supposed to be having a party, but where are they?") and, mostly, grousing about the conspicuous absence of presidential candidates.


"This whole thing here is a joke," said John Taylor, a hulking schoolteacher from Jacksonville wearing the tallest, most bodacious Chef Boyardee-style, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hat you ever saw. "How stupid the Democrats are -- we're shooting ourselves in the foot!" Taylor angrily recalled some of the Republicans' tactics for suppressing the Democratic vote in 2000 and 2004. "They stole two elections, and now we've been working six years to make sure that don't happen again. And the Democrats screw us!"


"Forget that," his friend said. "You're beating a dead horse. I blame the candidates. You've got, what, ten or eleven of them? And not one of them shows up here?"



It's rumored that Mike Gravel will be in town tomorrow, I note (and he did appear, at the convention and an antiwar rally). "If he's here, that's where my vote is going," said the friend.


Not Taylor's. "I'm going to have to resign from the Duval [County] Democratic Party" -- he serves on its executive committee -- "just so that I can vote for somebody else. I'm going to vote Libertarian, probably. Or I might cross over and vote for Huckabee. My wife will kill me. She's the treasurer of the Duval Democratic Party! She retired from her job to work full time, for no money, for the Democrats. And I'm the man in the hat! But why not? What difference does it make? The Democrats don't care about us in Florida."


"I think it sucks," says Bob Matherne, a bearded middle-aged fellow in a Kucinich shirt. Matherne's been registering LGBT voters in Sarasota for months now, but daily headlines featuring the war between national and Florida Democrats have made it tough. "People don't understand the situation -- and neither do I, really. They're asking for clarification: 'What's going on? The Republicans aren't being penalized for the early primary. Why are we being penalized? Why would Democrats do this, already knowing about Florida's problems with voting?'"



Florida Democrats can surely be excused for feeling a wee bit put-upon -- and confused. Across town just the weekend before, 5,000 Florida Republicans had been dined, wined and wooed by their presidential candidates at a lavish event culminating in a debate aired on Fox. Meanwhile, Florida Democrats -- who'd planned to trump the Republican weekend with their own presidential extravaganza -- found themselves in the bizarre position of being boycotted by their candidates.



This strange saga began innocuously enough. Fearing likely attempts by big states like Michigan and Florida to disrupt the parties' primary calendars with early dates in 2008, Republicans and Democrats ruled at their 2004 conventions that states trying to butt in before Iowa and New Hampshire would lose half their delegates. The Republicans left it there. The Democrats decided to try and fix things. The Democratic National Committee's rules committee was tasked with bringing order to the chaotic primaries. Twelve states applied for two additional early primary slots, which were awarded earlier this year to South Carolina and Nevada. Democrats in other states could not vote before February 5.



That created a sticky situation for Florida Democrats when, to nobody's surprise, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law in May scheduling the state's primary for January 29. (In most states, primary dates are set by the parties.) The primary date was wrapped up in a bill mandating a paper trail for the 2008 election -- a popular measure the minority Democrats could not afford to oppose. Besides, the loss of delegates was largely a toothless penalty, since according to precedent the Democrats' eventual presidential nominee controls the seating of delegates -- and surely wouldn't alienate folks from the nation's largest swing state by turning them away.


But the DNC did not leave it there. In August the rules committee voted to strip all the state's delegates unless Florida came up with an alternative to the January 29 voting. "I understand Florida's dilemma," DNC rules committee member Donna Brazile told me later. "But this is not about states' rights; this is about a process we're trying to keep some control over." Two weeks after the DNC vote, Democratic chairs in the "First Four" primary states jacked up the ante with their notorious "four-state pledge" demanding the candidates focus exclusively on them. The signees -- including John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- agreed to do no campaigning in Florida or any other state that might try to jump the gun. And under party rules, "campaigning" means just about everything: e-mail messages; calls to voters; TV, radio or newspaper ads; rallies; hiring campaign workers; holding press conferences. The only thing Democrats are allowed to do in Florida -- where folks have been complaining for years, with some justification, about being used as an ATM for the party -- is fundraise.


As Florida Democrats bayed in protest, DNC chair Howard Dean salted their wounds by opining that their votes "essentially won't count." Almost overnight, the unsavory reputation Florida Republicans had earned during the riotous Gore v. Bush 2000 recount battle was relegated to ancient history, and the Republicans' sagging hopes of carrying Florida -- where Democrats scored big in the 2006 midterms -- were suddenly sky-high. "The Democrats like to talk about Republicans disenfranchising black voters in Florida," state GOP chair Jim Greer shouted happily at a Black Republicans soiree. "How many delegates will the Democrats be sending from Florida to their national convention? Zero!"



Not exactly music to Democratic ears. "Leave it to Democrats to create a distraction born out of a nuanced disagreement over some arcane party rule," fumed Florida House minority leader Dan Gelber in a letter to Dean, as the rhetorical fur flew between Washington and Tallahassee. The options for Florida Democrats were hardly attractive -- "a lose-lose situation," said Steve Geller, the State Senate minority leader. While there was no way to change the January 29 primary date, the DNC said Florida could come into compliance by effectively declaring that vote meaningless -- a dubious move, to say the least, in the "state of disenfranchisement" -- and either holding subsequent caucuses, a state convention to choose delegates or a pricey vote-by-mail campaign. "Why would we have the presidential candidates' names on a ballot, have people go to the polls and vote and then find out that we're not counting their votes?" asked former state chair Terrie Brady. "We don't want to confuse Florida voters more than they're already confused." Even so, the Florida Democrats were seriously pondering the vote-by-mail option when Governor Charlie Crist and GOP legislators placed a regressive property tax referendum on the January 29 ballot. A strong Democratic turnout would be essential to defeating it.



In late September Florida's Democratic leaders voted to stick with the early primary. The four-state pledge kicked in, transforming the campaign into a running farce. When Obama emerged from a Tampa fundraiser and answered a few reporters' questions, his no-no made outraged headlines in Iowa. In an absurd episode later that day, the chastened candidate left another fundraiser with St. Petersburg Times reporter Adam Smith in hot pursuit. In response to a series of questions about Florida issues, Obama finally said, "I'm not allowed to talk to the press, guys!" Smith persisted: "Isn't it up to you?" Obama: "Nope!" Smith: "Aren't you the guy trying to lead the country?" Obama: "I signed a pledge!"


Meanwhile, the Republican candidates continued to roam the state freely, crowing about "Democratic disenfranchisement" and about how, in the words of disgusted Democrat Mark Esche, "the Democrats want our money but don't give a damn about our votes." (And the money had been flowing: by the end of September, Democrats had raised more than $10 million in Florida, triple the amount of the First Four states combined.) Esche, like many of the 2,600 who showed up for the Democratic convention, wore two buttons expressing most party members' sentiments: No Vote, No Money, read one. The other was stamped with the name of the DNC chair, with a screw superimposed: Screw Howard Dean. (Ironically, Dean's candidacy for DNC chair was enthusiastically backed by Florida delegates in 2005.) Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Alcee Hastings filed suit against Dean and the DNC for violating Florida Democrats' voting rights and "impairing minority voter participation" in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; a federal hearing is scheduled for December 5.



"Every time the DNC calls me up I say, My wallet is closed," said Esche. "If they're going to treat us like dirt, I don't see any reason to give them any help. Because, really: Iowa? New Hampshire? South Carolina? They're sideshows. The Democrats are punishing themselves. And isn't that stupid?"






The only happy Democrats in Orlando were the "Hill people" -- none more so than Mary Wilson, a frizzy-headed bundle of cheer who's served as president of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club since 1995. "I just loved her all the way back then, and it's just gotten worse since then," Wilson said, her sweatshirt drooping from the weight of (by my hasty count) twenty-three Hillary and Billary buttons, along with one of the ubiquitous Screw Deans. "The realities of politics, and what goes on behind closed doors, just burns me up," Wilson said. "But what are you gonna do? Anyway," she said, reaffixing the beam on her face, "Hillary will fix it! I give her carte blanche!"




Senator Clinton's fans have reason to feel giddy: their candidate is the lone Democrat benefiting from this latest "only in Florida" fracas. Just as in Michigan, where Clinton was the sole leading Democrat to leave her name on the January 15 primary ballot, she has outmaneuvered the opposition here. While the other Democrats eagerly signed the four-state pledge and pandered to Iowa and New Hampshire voters by boasting of their fidelity to the party rules, Clinton was the last to sign it, issuing a tepid statement through her campaign manager -- and quickly dispatching putative First Gentleman Bill to the state in her stead. At the time she signed the pledge, Clinton held thirty-point leads in the Florida polls. With her challengers surrendering the field, she still does. "My girl is savvy!" Wilson says.




Her foes, meanwhile, were not. Obama's campaign manager called the Florida primary "nothing more than a straw poll." Edwards's campaign, terrified of bad press in Des Moines or Manchester, sent nary a sign, bumper sticker or button to Orlando. (There were some goodies for the Obama, Clinton and Richardson folks.) A furious supporter called Edwards's headquarters and was told the campaign "thought their presence was not encouraged." Later, on Saturday, a couple of rogue Edwards backers commandeered a table and decorated it with hastily hand-painted signs. In keeping with the less than festive atmosphere of the weekend, there was a bitch session in full swing when I sidled up. "Republicans are saying, Look at these assholes -- they're shooting themselves in the foot again," said Francis Goss, a bearded refugee from New Jersey. "You don't make war with your own party!" cried a local pipefitter in a Vietnam veterans ball cap. "That's the kind of thing you do in a back alley, have these fights -- not in public!"



Have the Democrats already blown their chance to retake Florida next November? Dean has tried to cast the dispute as "a fight among politicians" that will be long forgotten by general-election time. "This is such a process story," says Brazile, "that I just don't know at the end of the day that voters will take this out on the Democrats -- this is a very volatile election season." But for six months and counting, the Democratic fracas has been the major topic of political buzz in Florida, with a steady drumbeat of local television soundbites ("The Democrats will be in Orlando this weekend -- the question is, Will their candidates be here?") and newspaper and magazine headlines (Will Dean's War on Florida Backfire?). According to recent polls, a whopping 77 percent of Floridians have heard about the Democratic boycott -- pretty impressive for "inside baseball." By a 62-to-16 margin across party lines, they think the DNC is off its rocker. And in a statistic cited by Senator Nelson at the convention, where he received a hero's welcome for suing the DNC (and for his romp over Katherine Harris last November), independent Florida voters already say they're 22 percent less likely to vote for a Democrat because of the whole primary mess -- far more than enough, as the St. Petersburg Times editorialized, to "turn Florida red." In another sign of trouble, Clinton has lost her lead in Florida general-election polls since the Democrats' boycott commenced, with Rudy Giuliani moving ahead.


"There's no question the Democrats will lose votes over this," says State Senator Geller, who spent much of the weekend trying to hunt down a journalist from Iowa who was reportedly -- and rather bravely -- stalking the convention. "The only question is how many. There was great anger at the Republicans after 2000. Today, there's great anger but it's at the Democrats." Among the Democrats, too. A few county leaders have reported losing longtime activists, some so outraged they've switched parties. Party stalwarts are encouraging other Democrats to cut off the party; top Democratic fundraiser Wayne Hogan of Jacksonville called Dean personally to cancel a DNC fundraiser this fall. Meanwhile, as Geller said, the Republicans "are smart -- they won't let it die." In early October the Republican Party of Florida mailed fliers to thousands of registered Democrats picturing an elderly man dabbing tearful old eyes and the caption: "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears? You're not alone." Across the bottom, the message is more blunt: Ready to Switch Parties? A voter-registration form was helpfully enclosed. The GOP has run ads proclaiming that while the Democratic "contenders have come here to take our money, they won't stand up for our right to be heard"; online, the party is tallying up Floridians' contributions to the absent Democrats. And, for good measure, they're working up an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative to bring out Christian conservatives next November.


"The Washington Democrats seem to be having a hard time accepting that what they've done is a serious mistake and really jeopardizing the election in Florida," says Jack Shifrel, who's been active with the party since Bobby Kennedy's campaign in 1968. Shifrel circulated a passionate "Dear Fellow Democrats" flier at the convention, urging them to withhold campaign money and "tell the DNC that threatening not to allow Florida Democrats to participate fully in the 2008 Democratic Convention will make the Democratic Party the butt of even more embarrassing jokes." Shifrel, who hopes to help organize an eventual Clinton campaign in Broward County, says, "It was a dumb mistake to take a chance on turning off Democrats and independents here. It is fostering an image of, 'Oh, here they go again. They don't want to win. They're such a circular firing squad.' All the stupid jokes that people make about Democrats.



"It's incredible when you think about it. I believe the issues are on our side, more than ever. I believe we have better candidates. But it doesn't mean we're going to win."



Can Democrats Reclaim the South?

The last thing my daddy wanted to do on a fine crisp fall Saturday in 1972, he made quite clear, was drive forty-five minutes in traffic just to hear "a bunch of Republicans yammering their rich man's nonsense." But I begged and whined until he caved. By the time Air Force One glinted down the runway of the Greensboro airport for the big rally, this die-hard Democrat -- a blue-collar veteran of World War II who would sooner cast a posthumous vote for Mussolini than pull the lever for a candidate of the Grand Old Party -- was straining under the bulk of his fat, nerdy 9-year-old boy, aloft on his shoulders as I chanted with a lusty throng of pent-up crackers: "Nixon now! Nixon now!"

No wonder I was carried away by the excitement: We were, after all, witnessing one of the most brazen acts of political thievery in American history. Not only had Democrats owned the South since Reconstruction (a grip so tight that there was not a single Republican governor or US senator in the region when I was born), the party had also personified the political philosophy that long knit white Dixie voters together almost as strongly as their segregated "way of life": that shape-shifting beast called populism. Before the backlash set off by President Lyndon Johnson's championing of civil rights in the 1960s, the region's Republicans were so anemic that historian V.O. Key wrote in 1949 that the Dixie GOP "scarcely deserves the name of a party," more closely resembling "an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge." My maternal grandfather, a violent yellow-dog Democrat who'd been known to wield his cane against outspoken Republicans, called it the "lily-livered cocktail party," and his opinion had long been nearly universal in the South. Democrats were us; Republicans were meddlesome, superior, pro-corporate Ivy Leaguers endlessly devising fresh ways to screw us over.

Now Republicans were doing the unthinkable: convincing folks they were on their side. Up on a platform erected on the runway, two key architects of the GOP's new Southern strategy, President Nixon and North Carolina's own Jesse Helms, were railing against hippies and atheists and other un-American elements holding down the "silent majority" of white working folk. Mixing pietistic appeals for school prayer and nostalgia for "traditional American values," they were mouthing a neopopulist pitch borrowed from George Wallace's scarily successful 1968 backlash campaign and scripted by Kevin Phillips's The Emerging Republican Majority. And the blue-collar Democrats were eating it up, roaring approval at every racially coded "law and order" applause line and spitting epithets back and forth with antiwar protesters. All except for my father, who had glanced around forlornly when we arrived and seen a depressing array of crew cuts, work shirts with names on the patches and rebel-flag mesh caps. "Good grief," he muttered. "Looks like a bunch of Democrats. What in the world?"

It was a neat trick, really: Stepping into the void created for white Southern conservatives when the Democrats became the party of civil rights and 1960s-style social liberalism, Republicans were adapting the old rhetoric of populism -- the sword so long wielded against them -- to "flip" white Dixie and create an electoral stronghold of their own. But Republican populism would be all about white cultural unity, not economic fairness. The enemy would no longer be the greedy corporate "Big Mules" scorned by legendary Alabama populist Jim Folsom but the broad coalition of "pointy-headed intellectuals" ridiculed by Wallace.

Far more than Nixon, who privately cursed conservative Southerners' "right-wing bitching" while publicly courting their votes, Helms embodied the new Republican breed. The son of a small-town police chief, the owl-faced Helms became the voice of white backlash in 1960s North Carolina with rabble-rousing, "lubrul"-whacking, nightly TV commentaries. "What is needed is a revolt against revolution," he prophesied in 1964. In his '72 campaign to become the state's first Republican US senator in the twentieth century, Helms was facing a Greek-American Democrat with the funny-sounding name of Nick Galifianakis. The culture warrior knew just what to do: Helms boiled down the new Republican populism to a campaign slogan that spoke volumes in four simple words: "He's One of Us."

It worked like a charm -- or better yet, a spell. Just three days after my disgusted father and I watched Nixon and Helms clasp hands in a "V" for victory at that raucous airport rally, Helms got his breakthrough win on the coattails of the President's stunning Southern sweep. Not only was Nixon the first Republican ever to ride a "solid South" to victory, he napalmed the old "Southern Democracy," capturing a gaudy 70 percent of the region's votes. Giddy with triumph, Nixon's chief Southern strategist, arch-segregationist Harry Dent of South Carolina, was widely quoted as boasting that "the South will never go back." Southerners, Dent said, "now realize they have been Republicans philosophically for a long time."

And so commenced the most misleading and destructive myth of contemporary American politics: the notion that the century-long Democratic "solid South" had morphed into an equally solid and enduring Republican South.

It was a threadbare myth from the start. The uniformity of Southern politics has always been overblown, even before the demise of Jim Crow in the 1960s. In what is still the most insightful book on the subject, 1949's Southern Politics in State and Nation, V.O. Key found that "even on the question of race the unity of the region has been greatly exaggerated in the national mind. Nor do the conventional stereotypes of Southern politics convey any conception of the diversity of political attitude, organization and tradition among the Southern states. The term 'Southern,'" Key concluded, "conjures up notions that have little resemblance to reality."

Democrats were bound to take a hit after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and '65. The Texan worried out loud that he had "handed the South to the Republicans" for decades to come. But while segregationist whites did slowly but steadily defect to the formerly hated "party of Lincoln," voting rights brought a massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Progressives had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new coalition of blacks with moderate and liberal whites -- a revival of the short-lived, biracial Southern Farmers' Alliance led by Georgia's Tom Watson in the 1890s. Even as Nixon took Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs -- none more so than the election of moderate-to-progressive governors in ten of the eleven old Confederate states, most calling for both economic fairness and racial reconciliation. In Georgia, Jimmy Carter -- replacing segregationist Governor Lester Maddox -- bracingly declared in his 1971 inaugural address that "the time for racial discrimination is over." In Florida, Reubin Askew hailed the emergence of "a humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge." A new cadre of black elected officials was pointing forward in the same direction. "We in the South have an exciting opportunity," Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson wrote in 1972, "to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry and disease."

When a near-solid South propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it appeared that the long-delayed dream might be coming to life. But Carter's White House stint, like Bill Clinton's after it, failed to live up to its populist promise. And while GOP fortunes were being bolstered by a new Christian-right politics that sent another wave of traditional Democrats into the Republican camp, the national Democrats began to beat a retreat from Dixie. Democratic state parties in the South, which had never had to mount full-scale general-election campaigns in the past, were woefully unprepared to counter the Republican surge -- and were largely left high and dry. "We'd had it so easy for so long that when Republicans started to crest, we had no idea what to do or how to do it," says Maxie Duke, a longtime Democratic activist in Oconee County, South Carolina. National Democrats, she says, "just didn't care."

Worse, the Democrats failed to take the opening left them by the Republicans' Southern strategy: Adapt the South's economic populist tradition into a fresh, class-based politics with broad appeal to blacks and whites alike, directly challenging the politics of cultural fear and racial unity. "The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield," writes John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie. "The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity."

By 1988 the sight of a Democratic presidential nominee in Dixie had become about as rare as a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But while white Southerners were voting in huge numbers for Republicans in "Washington elections" for President and Congress, Democrats did not go extinct. "Southern politics remains a complex mix," says Ferrell Guillory, head of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. "Between the solid South of yesteryear and the 'GOP lock' of today, there is a distinct difference. Then, the underdog party hardly mattered. Now, the underdog party has not gone away." A poll of Southern voters on election day 2000 found 35 percent identifying as Democrats -- just 26 percent as Republicans. Southern Democrats still win more state and local elections, where candidates matter more than party identities. The parity between the parties, unprecedented in the South's history, was neatly symbolized by the total tally of state legislative seats in the old Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Democrats, 891 Republicans. The vast bulk of the region -- including old Confederate states like Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia and "border South" states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri -- is more purple than red.

But when it comes to the South, myth always overwhelms reality. The Republican Party has come to rely on the mystical powers of its "solid South" to produce nearly two-thirds of the electoral votes its presidential candidates need every four years. National Democrats have leaned on the myth, too, using it to justify their drift from economic populism toward a Clinton-style, Wall Street-friendly centrism. Coming off three straight Democratic wipeouts in the 1980s, Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council persuaded many in the party that their only chance to compete in the vote-rich South was by "neutralizing" distinctions with the omnipotent Republicans. The "Republican Lite" strategy led to some statewide Democratic victories in Dixie in the 1990s, and Clinton used it to win eight Old South and border South states in both his 1992 and '96 presidential victories. But Republican Lite gave Democrats an eerie resemblance to the old mushy, stand-for-nothing Republican Party, and the strategy has paid diminishing returns over time. For the Democrats' largest and most loyal Southern constituency, Republican Lite represents an outright betrayal. "They spend 95 percent of the time trying to sway away white moderates and even conservatives," says Willie Legette, a longtime African-American political organizer in South Carolina. "The message is, 'We're no longer the party concerned with reducing racial and class inequalities.' They're so bent on not being identified as the party of liberalism that they give us no reason to vote."

When the Democrats' "me too" version of a Southern strategy failed them in 2000, with DLC stalwart Al Gore unable to carry a single state in Dixie (unless you count Florida), a backlash broke out among blue-state progressives understandably fed up with centrist compromises that weren't even helping to win national elections anymore. But rather than call for a recommitment to core Democratic values, the loudest voices blamed the South. "For Democrats, the South has become the Sahara of the Electoral College," wrote Slate columnist Timothy Noah. "Give it up." In the run-up to 2004, Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist, wrote an influential Washington Post op-ed calling for a non-Southern strategy. "Trying to recapture the region is a futile, counterproductive exercise because the South is no longer the swing region," he declared. "It has swung: Richard Nixon's 'Southern strategy' of 1968 has reached full fruition." Freed from their Southern bondage, wrote Mary Lynn Jones in The American Prospect, Democrats could focus on their "natural liberal base" and come up with "stronger, more compelling nominees" to champion a less compromised progressivism.

While no President had ever been elected without winning a sizable chunk of Dixie, a growing number of Democrats were eager to take the gamble. And they were about to find the perfect champion for their suicidal strategy.

On the doleful morning of January 21, 2004, my Alabama friend Todd had just one question: "What are the Democrats smoking this time? 'Cause whatever it is, if it can make you that oblivious to reality, I want some."

The night before, Iowans had held their quadrennial caucuses and made John Kerry the presumptive favorite for the nomination. I was living then in the heart of old Dixie, Montgomery, "cradle" of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and getting a taste of how unaccountably strange national Democratic politics looks in red America. For beleaguered Southern liberals like Todd, the Democrats' misunderstanding of what appeals to the South and to Middle America falls somewhere between a bad joke and a tragedy -- and Kerry's win looked like the perfect example. Since 1972 most Southerners' image of the two parties had flipped, even if their voting habits hadn't; now it was Democrats who entered every campaign suspected of being wine-and-cheese elitists out to screw the folk. Kerry was the very personification of that image. "You only have to listen to him for thirty seconds," Todd said, "to know that's somebody who'd be afraid to even dip a toe in Alabama."

If there was any doubt about that, Kerry dispelled it three days later. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," he tut-tutted to a Dartmouth College crowd. "Al Gore proved he could have been President of the United States without winning one Southern state." It was an odd interpretation of events, given that Gore's Southern wipeout had sealed his doom in 2000. In fact, according to Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, Gore shut down most campaign operations in the South before Labor Day of that year. Now Kerry, who repeated his non-Southern intentions twice in the following days, was planning to replicate Gore's losing strategy -- and further widen the gulf between national Democrats and the South.

"Presidential campaigns are the primary vehicle for selling a party's identity," notes Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who steered Mark Warner and Jim Webb to upset victories in Virginia in 2001 and 2006. "When John Kerry says, 'I'm not going South,' that means that there's some $40 to $50 million in Democratic investments not going South, either. It means digging a deeper and deeper hole in those states."

For a moment in the summer of 2004, it appeared that Kerry might "look South" after all when he tapped John Edwards as his vice presidential running mate. But shortly after the Democratic convention, Kerry's brain trust decided to wave a big white hanky, "suspending operations" in Purple South states -- Virginia, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas -- as well as in competitive states outside the region like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. All told, even before Labor Day, Kerry had "strategically" conceded twenty-seven states, including all of the South but Florida -- and all but forty-three of the electoral votes Bush needed for re-election.

Once again, Republicans were left to preach their divisive cultural populism to Southerners in a virtual echo chamber. The Democratic presidential campaign -- and whatever its message might have been -- was little more than a distant rumor. "In most of the South, and most of the country for that matter," Edwards told me ruefully after the election, "you couldn't hardly tell we were running a candidate. It's tough to convince people you're right when you can't be bothered to talk to them."

When the inevitable went down on November 2, 2004, with another non-Southern campaign sending the Democrats down in flames, it seemed high time to reassess the strategy. Instead, the blue-state backlash only intensified. "Fuck the South," began the most popular in a parade of blogs laying blame for Bush's re-election on the dimwits of Dixie. It wasn't just bloggers: On the morning of November 3, prominent Democratic strategist Bob Beckel called on the South to "form its own nation." Democratic wise man Lawrence O'Donnell, creator of The West Wing, ordered Southerners to shape up or be shipped out of the Union. "Some would say, 'Oh, poor Alabama. It's cut off from the wealth infusion that it gets from New York and California.' But the more this political condition goes on at the presidential level," O'Donnell blustered, "the more you're testing the inclination of the blue states to say, 'so what?'"

The new cry among the punditocracy was for something bolder and more divisive than John Kerry's approach: an anti-Southern strategy. "The Democrats need their own 'them,'" writes Thomas Schaller in his 2005 book, Whistling Past Dixie, "and the social conservatives who are the bedrock of southern politics provide the most obvious and burdensome stone to hang around the Republicans' necks.... If the GOP can build a national majority by ostracizing an entire region," he says of the South's animosity toward Yankees, "the Democrats should be able to run outside the South by running against the conservative South." By picking off a few non-Southern "purple" states like Montana and Colorado, Schaller and others believe, the Democrats can cobble together small national majorities in presidential elections.

As a species of Democratic defeatism, this approach can hardly be topped. And for all the charts and graphs that accompany such strategic chess games, calls for a non-Southern strategy are rooted in cultural stereotypes. While probing deeply into the politics of states like Montana, Schaller offers mostly context-free statistical "evidence" and sweeping judgments when it comes to the South. Among the various "pathologies" of the region Schaller identifies, for instance: "The South is the most militarized region of the country." But like everything else, it's not nearly so simple: Despite Southerners' often well-earned reputation for a patriotic belligerence unusual even among Americans, recent polls have found that they now oppose the Iraq War just as strongly as people in the rest of the country -- and more Southerners now think the United States should "withdraw completely" from Iraq.

That's no anomaly. The chasm supposedly yawning between Southern ideology and national norms is wildly, though routinely, overstated. In a 2003 comprehensive study of Southern political attitudes, pollster Scott Keeter found folks still tilting to the right on many issues of race, immigration and the use of military force. But Southerners are just as likely as other Americans to support government regulation, strong environmental protection and social welfare. They're prochoice, too (though less than the rest of the country), and on another contentious "cultural" issue, gay civil unions, are just slightly less supportive than other Americans. Polls show that young Southern voters, along with the region's booming Hispanic population, lean Democratic.

Rather than diverging from national political patterns, Southerners continue their post-Jim Crow evolution toward the American mainstream. And Democrats continue to run screaming in the other direction.

There was one hopeful sign of a wake-up call after 2004, when Howard Dean was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, declaring in his acceptance speech, "People will vote for Democrats in Texas, in Utah, in West Virginia if we knock on their doors." Dean's election had been assured by enthusiastic support from Southern and Western delegates -- folks who were not supposed to embrace an antiwar Yankee. But alone among Democratic leaders, Dean had shown some understanding of the price his party was paying for insulting and neglecting red America -- and of the best remedy.

Stating his intention of competing for the votes of "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks" in November 2003, Dean set off howls of protest among party leaders and his rivals for the presidential nomination, who said he was simultaneously stereotyping white Southerners and offending blacks. But few of the complaints originated in Dixie. As they "stand on their soapboxes to castigate Dr. Dean's remarks," wrote the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, "Democratic candidates and party leadership should bear in mind that black voters think for themselves." The previous February at a hamburger stand in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dean had been applauded by black listeners when he said, "You know all those white guys riding around with Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks? Well, their kids don't have health insurance either." That same month, Dean had told a DNC meeting that white folks "who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us." Maynard Jackson praised his words as "very gutsy," while New Orleans native Donna Brazile called Dean's comments "the medicine to cure my depression."

Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., whose father's 1988 presidential campaign had some success building a biracial coalition around economic populism in the South and Midwest, was one of several black Congressional leaders to endorse Dean soon after the "flag flap" erupted. Jackson praised Dean for moving past the Democrats' "stereotypical and condescending approach of appealing to whites in the South with a 'balanced ticket' and 'social conservatism.' Dean dares a new approach -- to join whites and blacks around a common economic agenda of good schools and healthcare."

But Dean's approach -- both in his campaign and with his new "fifty-state strategy" for the DNC -- was hardly a hit with white national party leaders, who complained bitterly about the expense of hiring Democratic organizers, in the words of ex-Clinton adviser Paul Begala, to "wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." In the 2006 midterms, national Democratic campaign committees shunned the fifty-state approach and backed only a handful of Democrats in the South. The chosen Southerners fit the "Republican Lite" mold to a T: social conservatives who emphasized "fiscal responsibility" and steered clear of calling for troop withdrawals in Iraq. The ideal Southern campaign, agreed Begala and his ilk, was Harold Ford Jr.'s lavishly financed Senate bid in Tennessee. Aiming to "out-Republican" his opponent, Ford spent the campaign bashing "illegals," waving the flag, ridiculing the very notion of gay marriage and calling up a quote from the Bible to address every issue.

Ford's loss was widely chalked up to race-baiting attack ads run by the Republican National Committee. But his defeat -- like those of all but one of the Democrats' chosen candidates in the South last year -- can also be viewed as a lesson in the limitations of Clintonian compromise. So can the results from the border South state of Kentucky, where self-described "liberal" John Yarmuth -- whose pleas for national funds fell on deaf ears -- pulled off a startling upset in the state's 3rd Congressional District by running a campaign that was the antithesis of Ford's. "The mistake Democrats have made here over the years is that they never provided a sharp contrast," says Yarmuth, who bested five-term Republican incumbent Anne Northup. "I said from day one, 'Anne and I are 180 degrees apart. If she believes something, I don't.' I was that clear. I wanted the voters to have a real choice and see where they'd go." They went with the frank-talking, antiwar, labor-loving candidate his own party considered too "liberal" to win. Meanwhile, the two party-funded challengers in Kentucky, both staunch social conservatives aiming to join the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, got their clocks cleaned. "There's a Beltway mentality that succumbs too much to conventional punditry," says Yarmuth. "The voters are way ahead of the Democrats and way ahead of Washington."

That was true in North Carolina, too, where blue-collar populist Larry Kissell challenged four-term incumbent Robin Hayes, the sixth-richest person in Congress. A mill worker turned high school teacher, Kissell ran the ultimate shoestring, grassroots campaign; in early October, when his GOP opponent reported $1.1 million cash on hand, Kissell trumpeted his campaign's balance: $89.94. "I'm sure my bank account looks a lot more like a typical 8th District voter than Hayes's," he said. This was making a virtue of necessity: Kissell's persistent pleas for help from the DCCC were ignored, even as the party spent more than $1 million on the nearby campaign of Christian conservative ex-quarterback Heath Shuler, who'd been personally recruited to run by DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel. Kissell had to make do with some backing from the netroots and John Edwards. Hopelessly outspent, he lost by 329 votes.

Democrats who bucked the script and offered Southerners a frank, unqualified brand of economic populism in 2006 were more successful than the Clinton clones -- none more than Jim Webb, the Republican turned Democrat who unseated Senator George Allen in Virginia. Before Allen's infamous "macaca moment," Webb had also been shunned by the national party as a hopeless case. While antiwar sentiment boosted his chances, especially in the increasingly "blue" burbs of northern Virginia, Webb's campaign was fired by an old-fashioned pocketbook populism similar to the messages that won for Yarmuth, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Webb believes a strong, clear economic message is the only way for Democrats to reconnect with working-class and middle-class folks who started voting Republican in the 1980s. "The natural base of the Democratic Party looked at both parties and saw they had both been taken over by elites," Webb told me in September. "They could see they weren't going to get helped on economic issues. The one place they thought they could make a difference was on these divisive social issues manipulated by the Republicans. But now they know that's not going to happen. If they can be reached out to with respect, and in terms of fundamental fairness, I think a lot of them will come back."

The populist resurgence of 2006 suggests a way past the false dilemma Democrats have long believed they faced: Either ditch the South, or try to compete there with a "me too" message. Rather than attempt to "neutralize" the GOP Southern strategy by mimicking it, Webb, Yarmuth and McCaskill -- all strongly prochoice, antiwar and outspokenly opposed to wedge issues like anti-gay marriage initiatives and restrictions on stem-cell research -- reasserted economic fairness as the central "moral" issue of politics. That will be key not only to attracting moderate evangelicals increasingly fed up with the narrowness and corruption of Republican "values" but also to firing up black voters in the South, who take a back seat to no one as strong Bible believers. A fresh, progressive "moral populism" could also help sway a lasting majority of Hispanics into the Democratic fold. "It's a toss-up at this point whether people will go Democratic or Republican," says former State Senator Sam Zamarripa of Georgia, a leading advocate for the South's booming immigrant population. "On the one side, a lot of people are going evangelical; but a lot are also seeing that the politics that prevail in Republican America are not working to their benefit."

An emphasis on the "value" of economic fairness (along with other Democratic issues popular with moderate evangelicals, including environmental stewardship) could help bridge those moral and pragmatic concerns -- and help Democrats forge a new progressive coalition that cuts through racial divisions. "The greatest gap in the Democratic 'narrative,'" Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently wrote in The American Prospect, "is a plausible account of how moral and economic concerns interact. That's the real 'values' nexus."

"Today the Democratic Party stands between two great forces," an eminent populist once said. "On one side stand the corporate interests of the nation, its moneyed institutions, its aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless ... On the other side stands the unnumbered throng which gave a name to the Democratic Party and for which it has presumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their mute appeal, and too often find their cry for help beat in vain against the outer walls."

That was 33-year-old William Jennings Bryan, the South's favorite "prairie populist," shaking the rafters on Capitol Hill in 1893. The Democratic Party then stood at a crossroads similar to today's. Republicans had ruled national politics for decades, with Democrats offering an ever-more-mushy centrist alternative. When they heeded Bryan's populist call, the party began its transformation into the progressive force behind Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal -- both more enthusiastically supported in the South than anywhere else.

Once again, the throng is restless -- and large, as it now includes "the millions of middle-class citizens who have been whipsawed by the greedy elite," notes Southern author John Egerton. "Now, all that stands between these loyal, hard-working Americans and a permanent condition of underclass subjugation is the Democratic Party."

Just as it was in 1896, a new Democratic populism is anathema to party leaders who've counseled centrism as a way to neutralize not only Republican cultural populism but also the flow of corporate cash into GOP coffers. For many rank-and-file Democrats in the blue states, embracing a new economic populism would mean letting loose of the old Southern myths -- which might be an even stiffer obstacle. The South has long amounted to little more than a swirl of stereotypes in the national mind (see Gone With the Wind; please do not see Forrest Gump). Many non-Southern progressives still see the region as a dank, magnolia-scented Otherworld where the cultural obsessions of race, religion and rifles hold white voters together in an unbreakable sway, making it hopeless terrain for planting any politics to the left of Jefferson Davis or Jerry Falwell.

"The Southern mystique," liberal historian Howard Zinn calls it in his 1964 book of the same title. The "notion that the South is more than just 'different,' that it is distinct from the rest of the nation ... an inexplicable variant from the national norm," is a false exaggeration, wrote Zinn, that "feeds self-righteousness in the North ... And it stands so firmly and so high on a ledge of truth that one must strain to see the glitter of deception in its eye." Forty years later, Jacob Levenson, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of the South during the 2004 campaign, echoed Zinn in identifying an important reason the myth persists even today: "The country, and by natural extension the press, often use the South as a convenient box to contain all sorts of problems, situations and conditions that are national in scope: race, white poverty, the cultural rift forming between the religious and the secular, guns, abortion, gay marriage ... the contours of American morality, and the identity of the major political parties."

Good thing it's a big box. And getting bigger -- no, not just because fundamentalists are making babies at a record clip. It's also thanks to the millions of Yankees who've gone South in search of better jobs and cheaper McMansions; a thirty-year "remigration" of blacks from the industrial North; and the nation's fastest-growing Hispanic population for more than a decade and counting. By the 2032 elections, the South is expected to control almost 40 percent of the electoral votes for President -- more than the shrinking Northeast and Midwest combined.

And yet a stubborn belief in the poor, backward, reactionary cracker South of myth still shapes and distorts American politics. By surrendering the region, Democrats have simultaneously abandoned the old hope of a durable national progressive majority. They have passively allowed right-wingers to build a mighty fortress for the defense of free-market excess in a region that is home to almost half -- 47 percent -- of the Americans who call themselves populists. They have allowed economic, racial and cultural divisions to fester. And now, even with the Republicans' Southern strategy wearing thin, they are lurching toward an even more dramatic break with the South.

It ain't wise, and it ain't right. I can't say it better than Chris Kromm, director of the liberal Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina. "For Democrats to turn their back on a region that half of all African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos call home, a place devastated by Hurricane Katrina, plant closings, poverty and other indignities -- in short, for progressives to give up on the very place where they could argue they are needed most -- would rightfully be viewed as a historic retreat from the party's commitment to justice for all."

The New Southern Strategy

Just one year ago -- hell, even a few months ago -- the unanimous view among the Democrats' strategic sages was that the only drama in the South this fall would be whether the region's few remaining statewide Democratic office-holders could hold on to their jobs. Could Senator Bill Nelson hold off Katherine Harris, America's tackiest theocrat, in Florida? Could Gov. Phil Bredesen show his conservative cojones by cutting enough folks off state health care to hold on in ultra-red Tennessee?

After the 2004 wipeout of five Democratic Senate seats in the South, many national Democrats were pleased to think that their long-running debate -- can we win in the Dixie, and should we even try? -- had been settled. Settled in the negative, that is. Thomas Schaller's recent book, Whistling Past Dixie, brought together years' worth of poll-tested memoranda in calling for the Democratic Party to kiss off the nation's largest region. It was just a more polite version of one of the most popular post-election blogs from the bitterness of late 2004: "Fuck the South."

Tonight, the South -- aka "Jesusland" -- has a message for those national Democratic wizards: No, fuck you. If the Senate lands in Democratic hands, it'll be thanks to Claire McCaskill's triumph in Missouri and Jim Webb's stunning win in Virginia over the man who was once conservative Republicans' great hope for the White House in 2008. It will not be thanks to the candidate who ran the sort of Southern campaign the sages called "perfect" -- Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, who went far beyond triangulation and out-Republicaned his opponent with hard lines on gay marriage, immigration, national defense, guns, and an array of Bible quotes that could whip John Ashcroft in a holiness contest any day.

McCaskill, a hard-nosed former prosecutor, and Webb, a tough-as-beef-jerky former Republican cabinet officer, are nobody's idea of wild-eyed liberals. But they both ran campaigns that stubbornly bucked conventional wisdom for Southern Democrats running statewide in the last two decades. Running against hardcore Christian conservative incumbents, neither of them triangulated. They were unwaveringly pro-choice; they called for sharp changes in Iraq policy; McCaskill opposed anti-gay marriage hoo-ha; and they ran as old-fashioned, blue-collar, labor-embracing economic populists. As what used to be called Democrats, that is.

"It's back to the traditional Democratic Party, which was founded on the health of the working person," Webb told me earlier this fall. In her victory speech this morning, McCaskill highlighted the same theme: "Once again," she said, "the Democratic Party has claimed Harry Truman's Senate seat for the working people of Missouri."

For the working people. It's a sequence of words Democrats have continued to mouth, but it's been a long time since anybody living in anything smaller than a McMansion had much call to believe it.

Truly championing the working class -- and winning these folks' votes -- means plunging in among them. That is what national Democrats are afraid to do. It's what John Kerry had in mind early in 2004, when he sniffed about how "everybody always makes the mistake of looking South" for Democratic votes. Despite forty years of steady economic growth in the region, the South still has more poor, struggling and badly educated Americans -- black and white -- than anywhere else in the country.

Those were the people who won Missouri and Virginia for the Democrats this year. Not because they finally woke up and realized where their true economic interests lay. McCaskill and Webb won because they took their campaigns directly into the Republicans' working-class strongholds. In the Bible Belt Ozarks of Southern Missouri, McCaskill campaigned hard, emphasizing her blue-collar message without running away from her pro-stem cell, pro-choice, anti-war message. It paid off in the biggest Republican county in the state, Greene, where early polls showed Republican Jim Talent winning a mere 53 percent of the vote -- a huge change from recent elections.

Webb stumped hard in Southwest Virginia, conservative hill country that has provided Republicans with their statewide margins in Virginia for three decades now. He did not thicken his accent to charm the folks down there; he did not excise the Marx and Engels references from his high-falutin speeches when he campaigned in the deepest, most conservative hollows. Like McCaskill, he spoke to folks in the same tone, with the same messages, that he used in liberal urban strongholds. It won't be so easy for Dixiephobic Democrats to make a "forget the South" argument now. As a recent Pew study found, the South's famously militaristic folks have turned against the Iraq war just as fiercely as the rest of the country. In Virginia, folks were not distracted by an anti-gay marriage amendment. In Missouri, folks were not distracted by this year's hot initiative issue, a stem-cell amendment. For years, they've been voting for Republicans with whom they disagreed on a host of issues; this time, they voted for Democrats with social and foreign-policy views that were often downright liberal.

The war mattered, but the working-class message made the difference for both McCaskill and Webb. It wasn't just their policy positions, which mimicked those of national Democrats in most ways. It was the way they showed up -- over and over again -- in places where Democrats (according to the sages) are supposed to avoid. On Election Day, McCaskill veered from her planned schedule and made the long trip downstate to shake hands at a polling place in Greene County. Like Webb, she looked rural and Christian Right folks in the eye, asked for their votes, and told them where she stood without trimming the edges off her progressive views. And like Webb, she got more votes from those folks than any chart, graph, poll or wishful thought could have conjured up.

No message from this triumphal mid-term election should ring more loudly than this. The South cannot be written off by the Democratic Party. More precisely, Southerners cannot be written off by the Democratic Party. The key to winning the votes of rural and working-class people in Dixie is the same as everywhere else in America. Nobody said it better than that great old Southern liberal activist, Strange Fruit author Lillian Smith. "A vote," she wrote in Killers of the Dream, "...is a small thing to give a man who has made you feel revered for the first time in your life."

Unlikely Virginia Pol Could Win Dems the Senate

A bit past 5 o'clock on a mid-September Wednesday, one month after the miraculous resurrection of his moribund Senate campaign, Jim Webb comes busting out of Call Room One, where Democratic candidates are held captive for hours at a time and forced to plead for cash. Catching the eye of his "body guy," former Marine Corps Times editor Phillip Thompson, Webb barks, "We've got to be in Alexandria, don't we?" The former Navy Secretary's feet, shod in combat boots belonging to his son, Jimmy, who's just gone on active duty in Iraq, never stop churning as he pushes through the heavy front door of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's Washington headquarters and pounds down the narrow walk-up toward his ride -- a small SUV, painted in camouflage, with a Jim Webb -- Born Fighting sign fixed to the side. Behind the wheel, as always, is "Mac" McGarvey, who lost an arm in Vietnam under Webb's command. When his "best friend" decided last February to challenge Virginia's wildly popular Republican Senator, George Allen, Mac up and left his job running a bar in Nashville, volunteering to spend the next nine months being directed -- and misdirected -- all over the interstates and backroads of Virginia.

"I have no idea where we're going," Mac says as Webb bounds into the front seat, quipping, "That could be taken as a symbolic statement about this campaign." After haggling with the body guy over the best route to his after-work campaign rally, Webb props a boot up on the dashboard and calls over his shoulder, "We have a live at 5:25?"

"There's a live at 5:40."

"All right. Oh, man. Do you have the binder with the speech in it?" The body guy hands it up to Webb. "I'm sorry," the candidate calls back to me. "You can ask me questions in a minute. I don't have a speechwriter, and I just wrote this this morning, and I need to go over it." It's impossible to tell whether Webb, who's congenitally deadpan, is kidding about the speechwriter. He speed-scans the copy, scribbling a few lines in the margins and handing back a page at a time to the body guy, who's quietly pointing Mac toward Alexandria. When they get there -- if they get there -- Senator Barack Obama will be there, too, making his first pitch for a former member of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet. It will also, no doubt, be Obama's first endorsement of a formerly bitter critic of Vietnam War protesters, civil rights activists, 1960s liberals, affirmative action policies and women in combat -- just a few of Webb's targets through the years.

From a cranky Republican traditionalist, Webb has transformed into one of the unlikeliest protest candidates ever. And now, thanks to the spiral of controversy set off by Allen's now-legendary "macaca moment" in mid-August, Webb has also become the unlikeliest of this year's Democratic challengers to have a genuine shot at toppling a Republican incumbent and giving his new party a majority in the next Senate.

Webb's gonzo campaign -- chaotic, underfunded and featuring a candidate who refuses to pander or even, at many campaign appearances, to so much as crack a smile -- grew out of his exasperation with Allen's unwavering support for George W. Bush's Iraq adventure. Webb had been warning against military intervention in Iraq, insisting that it would destabilize the Middle East and spawn dangerous anti-Americanism, since the late 1980s. After he wrote an op-ed in September 2002 predicting US invasion forces would "quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets," Webb met with the senator -- whom he had endorsed over Democrat Charles Robb in 2000 -- to discuss his concerns. Webb came away with his dander up, disgusted by Allen's reportedly insisting, "You're asking me to be disloyal to my President."

Webb might have been a hellacious soldier -- one of the most highly decorated to return from Vietnam, in fact -- but he has never been a go-along guy, to say the least. His stint as Navy Secretary, for instance, ended with Webb abruptly resigning after just ten months, protesting the Reagan Administration's refusal to fully fund the 600-ship fleet he insisted was necessary. But as mad as he was about Iraq, and about Allen's automatic approval of Bush's disastrous policies, Webb took his sweet time deciding whether to challenge Allen's re-election bid. It would mean abandoning his lucrative writing career, which has included six critically acclaimed war novels, a successful Hollywood screenplay (Rules of Engagement) and a bestselling cultural history of the Scots-Irish in America (Born Fighting). It would also mean having to do things the proud and contrary Webb despises -- like begging for money. When he finally took the plunge, it was with high hopes the candidacy might "inspire some intelligent debate" on the war. Webb had also decided he could help "reshape American politics" by showing how a Democrat can combine foreign policy "realism" with an old-fashioned dose of economic populism to win in the South again.

"I think both parties have been taken over by elites," Webb says over his shoulder after he's done perusing his speech. "The natural base of the Democratic Party, working-class folks, looked at both parties and saw they weren't going to get any more help on economic issues. The one place they thought they could make a difference was on these divisive social issues, so that's how they've been voting. But I think that has run its course now." So, he says, has the "cultural Marxism" of the 1960s that's dominated the Democrats. "We're in a sea change with political terminology and identities," he says. "What is right and what is left anymore? What is conservative and what is liberal?"

With his mix of "foreign policy realism, economic populism and social moderation" -- Webb is prochoice and staunchly opposed to the anti-gay marriage amendment on the Virginia ballot this November -- he aims to put a crack in the Republicans' recent dominance of federal elections in the South. His challenge is not only to the GOP but to national Democrats and "Yankee liberals" who have increasingly abandoned hope of competing in the South. "This race is a test," Webb says. "If we can get a number of these people to come back to the Democratic Party based on economic populism and fairness, rather than the way they've been maneuvered on issues like flag-burning, God, guts, guns, gays -- if they can be reached out to with respect, and in terms of fundamental fairness, I think a lot of them will come back to the Democratic Party."

It seems fitting that if he's going to win on November 7, Virginia's newest fightin' Democrat will have to beat a champion practitioner of the Republicans' faux-populist Southern Strategy. Often viewed as the second coming of Ronald Reagan, George Allen has mastered the art of convincing working-class voters he's a regular guy while carrying water for big money. The Southern California native's blend of Disneyesque optimism, easy-going geniality and tough-guy talk have made him -- as a state legislator, congressman, governor and US senator -- one of the most popular figures in Virginia history. "He's always been a very smooth, on-message politician," says longtime observer Mark Rozell, professor at George Mason University and co-editor of The New Politics of the Old South. "Allen had a natural touch for the political that could disarm some of his worst enemies, with that nice smile and charm. And he seemed incapable of making a mistake on the campaign trail. It was no surprise that conservatives were seeing him as their best presidential option for 2008."

But in just fifty-nine seconds on the second Friday in August, Allen's veneer cracked. It happened, not coincidentally, in the "Reagan Democrat" stronghold of southwest Virginia, where Allen had deployed "moral" wedge issues to rack up nearly a 2-to-1 margin over Senator Robb in 2000, more than enough to cement his victory statewide. At a small rally in Breaks Interstate Park, Allen was amiably plying his stock of platitudes, promising to "run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas." Then Allen spotted the lone audience member of color, Webb campaign volunteer S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old Fairfax native of Indian-Asian descent who'd been following Allen on his summer "listening tour," videotaping his remarks. Jabbing an index finger in Sidarth's direction, Allen said, "This fellow over here in the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent -- he's following us around everywhere." Allen flashed his fans a broad, mischievous grin. "And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film." Allen swiveled back toward Sidarth. "You show it to your opponent [sic], because he's never been here and probably never will come."

In his suddenly awkward way, Allen was sticking to the tried-and-true Southern Strategy script, attempting to paint his Democratic foe as an out-of-touch elitist. Rather than communing with the everyday people of southwest Virginia, he said, Webb "actually right now is with a bunch of Hollywood movie moguls." (Webb was in Los Angeles for a fundraiser.) In contrast to his highfalutin literary opponent, Allen said, "We care about facts, not fiction. So, welcome -- let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia."

By nightfall, Allen's remarks were burning their way across the World Wide Web and reviving long-held suspicions about the Senator's racial views. As a state legislator, Allen had voted against Virginia's Martin Luther King Day. As governor, he issued a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month, asserting that the Civil War, far from a slavery dispute, was "a four-year tragic, heroic, and determined struggle for independence, sovereign rights and local government control." In the 1993 gubernatorial campaign, Allen's lifelong passion for the Confederacy -- symbolized by the rebel flag displayed in his living room and the noose he'd hung up in his law office -- raised eyebrows but did not prevent him from using religious wedge issues to win a surprisingly high slice (as much as 17 percent, according to one poll) of the African-American vote. Once in the Senate, he relied on symbolic gestures -- a well-publicized "civil rights pilgrimage" to Alabama, a formal apology for slavery that he co-sponsored -- to foster the illusion of racial moderation.

So much for that illusion. "We've always thought George Allen was racially insensitive," says John Boyd Jr., president of the Virginia-based National Black Farmers Association. Allen didn't help matters, especially among working-class voters who like a "stand-up guy," when he subsequently claimed he'd invented the word "macaca" on the spot. He stumbled over questions about his mother's roots in French Tunisia, where "macaca" is a common racial slur.

In a September address to a national conference of black educators, Allen -- a professional politician for nearly thirty years -- said he'd learned a "valuable lesson about the power of words." Reverting to a familiar campaign theme -- in which he scores cultural points by reminding folks that his dad, George Allen Sr., was the longtime Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins football coach -- the beleaguered Senator cooked up a bizarre explanation for why he never learned to respect racial sensitivities. "On football teams and every team sport, you don't care about someone's religion, race or their ethnicity," he said. "All you care about is if that person can help your team." The color-blind racial utopia of football, Allen went on to say, is precisely what "we should aspire for in our society here in America."

A few weeks later on Salon, three of Allen's former football teammates at the University of Virginia accused him of having used the word "nigger" with some regularity during his college days -- claims echoed by well-known Virginia political pundit Larry Sabato, another classmate of Allen's at UVA. Allen flatly denied the accusations, saying, "It is not who I was and is not who I am." But even the old teammates who remembered him fondly also remembered that his affection for country music and the Confederacy had led them to call him "Neck," short for redneck. Now, it seemed, everybody in Virginia -- everybody in America -- was buzzing about George Allen's racism. Everybody except his opponent. On the third Sunday in September, Jim Webb got what looked like the second big break of his campaign. In a Meet the Press face-off, host Tim Russert joined Webb in dogging Allen about his unflagging support for the Iraq War. Webb's incisive critique of the war and his call for an ambitious "diplomatic process" that would include Syria and Iran sounded mighty appealing next to Allen's grinning recitations of White House talking points. When he squared off with Allen the next afternoon at a Chamber of Commerce debate in Fairfax, Webb intended to build on his Meet the Press momentum and make the campaign -- finally -- a referendum on the war, and on GOP mistreatment of the middle and working classes.

Instead, the debate was only just warming up when Allen suffered yet another "macaca moment." When local TV reporter Peggy Fox asked where the Senator had learned his now-infamous racial slur, Allen launched into a defense of himself and his family, noting among other things that his mother's father, Felix, had been incarcerated by the Nazis during World War II. He should have left that last part out. Fox had read a recent article in The Forward alleging that Allen was trying to hide his family's Jewish heritage, and she asked him if the allegation was true. The question jolted the normally unflappable Allen, who visibly recoiled while his half of the audience jeered and hooted the reporter. "Why is that relevant -- my religion, Jim's religion, or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?" he demanded. When Fox stoutly replied that she was seeking "honesty, that's all," Allen angrily defended his honor, insisting, "I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."

Throughout it all, Webb stood stock still, gazing straight ahead, expressionless as a grunt at roll call. When his time came to comment, Webb managed only to mumble a few words about how he didn't see why Allen's religion mattered. And the next day, when Allen admitted in a written statement that his mother had indeed revealed to him, a month earlier, that her family was Jewish, Webb remained as lock-lipped as he had through the whole "macaca" controversy.

Campaign-watchers viewed Webb's strange silence as another sign of his stubborn resistance to behaving like a proper politician. "The 'macaca' fallout softened up George Allen for the kill," says Mark Rozell. "Webb doesn't seem to know how to plunge the knife in."

But Webb's reticence is not simply the product of poor politicking -- or a noble refusal to sling mud. Webb has troubles of his own with the same issues that have caused Allen's stumbles. During his Democratic primary campaign last spring, Webb was accused of anti-Semitism after his campaign put out a cartoonish flier depicting his opponent, Harris Miller -- a longtime corporate lobbyist -- as "Miller the Job Killer," a big-nosed, cigar-puffing "anti-Christ of outsourcing." (Miller now says he's convinced that his former opponent is "not an anti-Semite.")

Far more problematic for Webb's campaign -- especially in a state where nearly a fifth of the voting-age population is African-American -- is his history of bashing affirmative action. The most notable example is a Wall Street Journal book review in 2000, where Webb wrote: "Affirmative action, which originally sought to repair the state-induced damage to blacks from slavery and its aftermath, has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand." When questions came up during the primary campaign about Webb's startling assertion that racial "preferences" were as damaging to society as segregation itself, Webb tried unsuccessfully to argue -- as he does at length in Born Fighting -- that affirmative action should be based on a history of economic deprivation, not simply on race. But he also said, somewhat confusingly, that he believes African-Americans should be the sole beneficiaries of affirmative action programs, not members of other ethnic groups.

As a result, says civil rights activist and Virginia Commonwealth University professor W. Avon Drake, potential black voters don't know what to make of Webb. "He went a little too far in changing his position," Drake says. "Blacks can sense when someone is genuine." When word got around that Webb had addressed Confederate descendants at the National Confederate Memorial in 1990, asserting that Southern soldiers believed they were fighting for "sovereignty rather than slavery," some black Virginians could only conclude that there was scant difference between the two white candidates for Senate. "I look at the race and I see two Republicans running for the same job," says longtime State Senator Benjamin Lambert of Richmond, who stunned his colleagues with a late-August endorsement of Allen, who had promised to help Lambert win more funding for traditionally black colleges.

Lambert's endorsement will carry little weight statewide, especially given the avalanche of racial embarrassments for Allen's campaign. In a Mason-Dixon poll taken in early September, just 5 percent of black Virginians said they would support Allen this time. But only 73 percent said they'd vote for Webb -- well below the usual mark for Democrats running statewide. Webb's campaign has yet to be endorsed by the state's most powerful black Democrat, former governor and current Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, and it's faced criticism all along for failing to reach out aggressively to black leaders and voters. But in late September Webb met with the black legislative caucus and made the rounds with respected black leaders like Ray Boone, editor of the state's largest black newspaper, the Richmond Free Press. Boone has his doubts about Webb, but his paper has taken Senator Lambert to the woodshed for equating Webb's shortcomings with Allen's. "The bottom line is that we need to send a strong message that the George Allen type of politics is intolerable and unacceptable," Boone says. "He has built a career on racist campaigns." When November rolls around, says Drake, "Webb will get 90 percent of the black vote. The question is how many votes there will be."

"I am fired up!" Barack Obama shouts from the stage in Alexandria. "I need some help in the Senate." And Jim Webb's help, Obama says, is just the kind he wants. "I've had enough of politicians who act tough on TV," he declares. "I want somebody who really is tough." Together, Obama promises, he and Webb will work toward the kind of "practical, nonideological, honest and trustworthy government the American people deserve." Under the pure blue sky of this late-summer afternoon, with a big, diverse crowd wearing Webb stickers and cheering lustily, the messy crosscurrents of the year's strangest Senate race seem far away. Even Webb, who breaks into more than one smile during the proceedings and hugs Obama happily when it's over, seems momentarily carried away by the giddiness of a campaign that is, out of the blue, looking like a winner. A little more than a month before, Webb had been a forgotten candidate, trailing by double digits in the polls and facing an ominous 15-to-1 fundraising deficit. The prominent national Democrats whose endorsements had put him over the top in the primary were nowhere in sight. Democratic campaign committees, busy pouring millions into "key" non-Southern states, had coughed up a grand total of less than $40,000 for Virginia as of July -- not only shutting out a compelling antiwar candidate but ignoring the fact that the Old Dominion has become so competitive in recent elections that pollster John Zogby has dubbed it "the new Ohio."

Now that Webb is neck-and-neck with Allen in the polls, the money's coming in -- however belatedly. So are the rock star Democrats: John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, among others, would soon follow Obama's lead. The Illinois Senator's appearance was calculated, of course, to ratchet up enthusiasm for Webb among black voters. But his unqualified embrace of Webb will also help here in northern Virginia. With its booming population of left-leaning nonnatives, northern Virginia is the main reason Virginia has become, in pundit Sabato's terms, a "purple state." To beat Allen, Webb will need an overwhelming margin of victory here to offset the votes of "moral conservatives" elsewhere -- especially since the Republican still has at least one ace in the hole.

Named for its Christian-right co-sponsors, the Marshall-Newman amendment is expected to draw droves of evangelical Virginians to the polls. Allen, meanwhile, is expected to spend a sizable portion of his campaign war chest on ads portraying Webb's opposition to the measure as proof that he's just another amoral, elitist liberal. But it might not be the silver-bullet wedge issue Allen is looking for. That's partly because Virginians don't like to mess with their Constitution, whose declaration of rights is the world's oldest such document. It's mostly because the amendment -- vaguely worded and sure to prompt a spate of lawsuits if it passes -- has the broadest reach of any yet proposed.

"What's really amazing, as compared to your garden variety gay-bashing, is the breadth of its application to opposite-sex couples," says Michael Schewel, former Virginia secretary of commerce, who's been speaking against the amendment to business groups. "The only thing it doesn't affect is gay couples," because state law already prohibits them from marrying or enjoying spousal benefits. After an initial paragraph defining marriage, the rest of the amendment prohibits all "unmarried individuals" from exercising any "rights, benefits, obligations, qualities or effects of marriage." "This is nothing but a divisive wedge issue to get their people to the polls," says Charley Conrad, president of Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club. But where other states' amendments have merely been summarized on their ballots, the full text of Marshall-Newman will be there for Virginia voters to read -- thanks to the efforts of amendment opponents like Governor Tim Kaine, who pressed for a state law requiring the full amendment to appear. "Our slogan ought to be, Read the whole thing," Schewel jokes. Polls show that most Virginians who do read the amendment are confused -- and opposed.

If gay marriage is supposed to be Allen's ace -- along with the millions his campaign has to spend on attack ads -- Webb might yet trump him with his unblemished record of opposing the Iraq War. In Virginia, like everywhere else, disgust with the war cuts across partisan, racial and cultural divides. "Black people know the war is not making life better," says Ray Boone. "It's diverting resources abroad. It's killing our people." Bush's war is no more popular in predominantly white southwest Virginia -- at least not on a recent Saturday in Castlewood, where hundreds gathered for the annual fish fry and political rally of the United Mine Workers' local. "We think it's useless," says Jimmy Taylor, a young truck driver. "Why send more people in to get killed?" Taylor's girlfriend, Brittany Brading, agrees. "Bush is sending all this money to Iraq when people are homeless and hungry here. It's disgusting."

In the heart of George Allen's "real world of Virginia," this year's fish fry mostly turned into a rally for Jim Webb. Southwest Virginia generates about one-third of the state's votes, and cutting into the Republicans' normally large margins of victory here was key to this decade's elections of successive Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Kaine. Webb just might do the same. While Allen has his wedge issues, he can't match the depth of Webb's connection to these folks -- or his understanding of the reasons that many of them have strayed from the Democratic fold. Like practically every 60-year-old white person with roots in southwest Virginia, Webb was born into a blue-collar clan of ardent Democrats. As he came to political consciousness in the 1960s, Webb grew offended by the attitude civil rights activists -- "liberal Yankees," in particular -- took toward working-class whites in the South. "The fight over ending legal racial segregation," he writes in Born Fighting, "ended up demonizing people who had shared the same social and economic dilemma as the blacks themselves." The venom should have been directed, Webb believes, at the small class of wealthy Southern (and Northern) whites who had always controlled Dixie's economy and insured the continuation of Jim Crow. When he came back from Vietnam, Webb was equally dismayed by the cold shoulder returning soldiers received from those who opposed the war. It was enough to send him scurrying, along with a growing number of white Southern Democrats, into the waiting arms of the GOP.

"I was generally comfortable with the Republicans, until the neoconservatives took over," Webb says. "But the one issue that always bothered me was economic fairness."

In Castlewood Webb heeds his own advice to Democrats: Respect the voters you're addressing. His speech is virtually identical to the one he gave in "liberal" northern Virginia -- right down to the Marx and Engels references -- and carries precisely the same message: Bush and Allen's war is a disaster, and working Americans are getting shafted while corporations and CEOs rake in record profits. One thing's different here, though: Webb's laconic delivery, far from a liability, testifies in shorthand that he's no slick politician. Which makes him a far cry from his opponent, says Sam Church, UMW local's political coordinator. "Allen doesn't relate to working people -- has he ever had a job?"

Perched in a lawn chair nearby and clutching his cane, Robert Ervin -- who left the mines in 1979 after thirty-eight years -- doesn't mince words. "George Allen? He's the nearest nothing ever been in this country. He's a big old fake, that's all." If enough Virginians end up agreeing with that assessment, Allen will be in a heap of trouble on November 7. And for all his lack of political panache -- in fact, partly because of it -- Webb will have pulled off something few thought possible: making the Republican in a Southern race look like the one who's unreal, elitist and out of touch with regular folks.

For a lot of Virginians, it's been looking like that ever since Labor Day. The holiday doubles as the state's annual kickoff for election seasons, and it's long been obligatory for politicians running statewide to appear in the big Laborfest Parade in Buena Vista, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. This year was a little different. Jimmy Webb was about to ship out to Iraq and his dad, the antiwar candidate, decided to skip the biggest political day of the year to say goodbye.

"Everybody had heard where Webb was that day, and why," recalls Charley Conrad. "So people are standing there watching the parade, and what do they see coming down the street but George Felix Allen, in a big white ten-gallon hat and those fancy boots he always wears, grinning and waving from atop a brown-and-white horse called -- I'm not kidding -- Bubba. And all I could think was, I sure hope people are paying attention."

Cornbread and Roses

On a soft gray Monday in mid-October, the Interfaith Council shelter in downtown Chapel Hill has a brand-new volunteer, brimming with enthusiasm that's almost annoying at 10:15 in the morning. "How're you all doing back there?" John Edwards calls out to the kitchen crew as he beams into the dining room, trailed by a clutch of staffers, University of North Carolina antipoverty activists and TV cameras. While he chats up the shelter volunteers and residents, alternately squinting his perma-tanned face with concern and flashing the yard-wide smile that almost won Iowa, two white-haired women on the kitchen crew, both named Jane, are nudged toward him for a souvenir shot.

"I want this picture for me," Edwards says with his best Sunday school charm, hugging the women under his arms. After a bit more chatting and hugging, there's a momentary lull. Hands on hips, with mock impatience, Edwards tilts toward the kitchen and hollers out, "So am I supposed to do something or what?"

"Well, we've got some unloading," offers Paul Eberhardt, the day shelter coordinator. Quick as a flash, last year's Democratic nominee for Vice President is back in the pantry, tearing cans of generic lima beans and tomatoes out of their plastic-wrapped cardboard while Eberhardt feeds him an earful of insights from the front lines of poverty-fighting. "Lately we're getting hospital workers, construction workers, here at lunchtime," Eberhardt says, talking fast. "It's low employment now, not just unemployment." Edwards purses his lips, furrows his brow, gives every sign of listening, even as he briskly moves on to filling up water pitchers, smiling on cue for the local affiliates until it's time to clap his hands and cry out to his staff, "What's next?"

Around this time last year, a lot of people were asking that very same question about Edwards. After his cometlike ascent from first-term senator to the national Democratic ticket, Edwards crashed to earth when he failed to persuade running mate John Kerry to contest George W. Bush's questionable victory in Ohio. Suddenly, Edwards's giddy three-year campaign to lift himself into the political stratosphere -- and knit together the "two Americas" he dearly loved to preach about -- was over. His wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. His Senate seat, which Edwards had abandoned to focus on the national race, would return to Republican hands in January, leaving him without a built-in mechanism for staying in the national spotlight. For the first time in his adult life, this blue-skies optimist was staring straight into a blank horizon. Friends and admirers offered advice and speculated: Would he return to his law practice? Start a foreign-policy think tank to shore up his presidential résumé? Run for governor? Cash in on his connections with some Dan Quayle-style consultancies?

In February Edwards surprised them all, announcing a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." With a $40,000 annual salary paid by private funds, Edwards became the first director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC, Chapel Hill's law school, largely a think tank designed to bring antipoverty scholars, activists, journalists and politicians together to cook up innovative ways to tackle economic and racial inequities.Edwards is also putting some of his ideas into action, including the College for Everyone program he promised in 2004. In low-income Greene County Edwards this summer announced a pilot program to pay for the first year of college for local high school graduates willing to work at least ten hours a week.

Since launching the center, Edwards has returned to perpetual motion, taking his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states. Between visits to shelters and job-training centers and delivering his new stump speech, full of ringing challenges to view poverty as "the great moral cause of our time," Edwards has raised more than $4 million for Democratic legislative candidates in mostly red states, trying, as he says, "to build the party back from the ground up." He's teaming with unlikely partners on the left -- including local AFL-CIO, ACORN and NAACP chapters -- in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. He's praising Big Labor's historic role in "lifting millions of Americans out of poverty." And he's floating serious -- and surprisingly liberal -- proposals to put his high-flown rhetoric into action.

He's touting a controversial "cultural integration" plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. He's calling for expansions to Bill Clinton's earned-income tax credits, for concerted crackdowns on predatory lenders, and for "work bonds" to help low-income workers build savings and assets. He wants not only to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent but also to raise capital-gains taxes for those on the top rungs. After Hurricane Katrina he spoke pointedly about how "the face of poverty in America is the face of color" and promoted an ambitious Gulf Coast recovery program modeled on FDR's Works Progress Administration -- a touchstone for the kind of big-government liberalism that the old Edwards (like most Democratic leaders today) wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.

All of which raises a question: Who is this guy -- and what has he done with the centrist New Democrat who once had Karl Rove quaking in his boots? While he clearly hasn't lost his all-too-palpable lust for the White House, Edwards has largely left behind the Clintonian emphasis on "personal responsibility" and "fiscal restraint" that often struck a hollow note in his campaign speeches -- particularly in contrast to his heartfelt cry of "two Americas." The metamorphosis began during the last campaign, when Edwards gradually found his voice as an economic populist. Less than a decade into his political career, he remains a work in progress.

"We might be seeing the kind of transformation Bobby Kennedy underwent," says Pete MacDowell, a veteran grassroots organizer and staunch Edwards critic ("a political Ken doll with a populist streak" is how MacDowell describes him) who runs the NC Progressive Democrats PAC. "After he initially supported Vietnam and went slow on civil rights, Kennedy developed a moral core and turned into the kind of Democrat we haven't seen since. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe that's what we're now seeing with Edwards. Maybe this is his core."

Selling Kids on Fighting Poverty

However implausible the RFK comparison might sound, it's hard to deny it on this mid-October Monday in Chapel Hill, when Edwards -- fresh from the shelter -- shimmers onto the stage of UNC's Great Hall at lunchtime, soaking up Beatles-esque roars of adulation from an overflow crowd of students. It's the first stop on a ten-campus national tour, Opportunity Rocks, where Edwards will urge thousands of students to fight poverty. Even with an unsexy message, the messenger will draw crowds that surprise even his organizers -- 1,500 at the University of California, Berkeley, more than 2,000 at the University of Michigan.

Edwards doesn't disappoint his young fans. Like his hero, Kennedy, he has a knack for talking about life-and-death struggles, laying bare the challenges of blue-collar folks struggling to make ends meet but leaving his audience more challenged and inspired than depressed. Reminding students of their forebears' campaigns against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, Edwards throws down the gauntlet: "These folks need a champion -- and not just me. They need you. You can make ending poverty in America the cause of your generation. It's the right thing to do. This is not about charity -- it's about justice!"

"I never thought I'd see this many kids coming to listen to a speech about poverty," UNC senior Josh Glasser gushed in the glowing wake left by Edwards as he jetted off to his next gig. Last year Glasser co-founded SPROUT, a campus group helping low-income locals apply for earned-income tax credits. Edwards's speech at UNC, where Glasser and co-founder James Jolley handed out SPROUT fliers, brought sixty-five new students to the group's listserv in just the first day. "We met with the senator and his staff and they really listened, really wanted to help," Glasser says. "It wasn't some top-down thing -- they wanted to hear our ideas. I know some people are cynical about him using this to position himself for President. But come on: We all know poverty's not exactly a get-'em-to-the-polls kind of issue. He's convinced me, at least, that he means it." For Edwards, that's one down -- and just a few dozen million more skeptics to go.

A Rising Star, Moving Left

Johnny Reid Edwards shot onto the national political stage in 2001, at a moment when Democrats were still gagging on the bitter dregs of Al Gore's defeat -- and dreaming fond dreams of the next Bill Clinton. And here, by God, he seemed to be: a jovial moderate, even handsomer than Clinton, saying smart, empathetic things about "regular people" in a soft Dixie drawl. Like Clinton, Edwards had risen to glory from practically nothing, the kind of rags-to-riches legend that has made voters swoon since the days of Andy Jackson. Best of all, he came without Clinton's personal baggage. Even the notorious smear campaigners at the North Carolina Republican Party could dredge up nothing damning on Edwards during his upset of Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998 -- nothing beyond the indisputable fact that he had, for twenty years, been successfully suing big corporations on behalf of those "regular people," piling up millions in the process as one of America's top trial attorneys.

In his three years as a senator, Edwards had hardly had time to knock anybody's socks off. He'd impressed hard-bitten Washingtonians when he deposed key witnesses in Clinton's impeachment trial and delivered a closing defense argument -- and again when he led a winning fight, joining Senators McCain and Kennedy, for the Patients' Bill of Rights. But there were whispers of shallowness, callowness, naked opportunism. And almost as soon as he'd kindled the hopes of forlorn Democrats, more serious doubts began to surface.

Democrats had seen both Clinton and Jimmy Carter campaign as power-to-the-people populists and then govern more like Nixon than Roosevelt. Edwards's affiliation with the Democratic Leadership Council, founded in the mid-1980s to demolish the party's old "liberal fundamentalism," reinforced the suspicion that he was just another big talker from Dixie with a conservative core. It didn't help when Clinton, the old snake-oil master himself, admiringly commented that Edwards could "charm an owl out of a tree." Worse, throughout 2002 and 2003 Edwards gave policy speeches -- crafted in part by DLC policy guru Bruce Reed -- that made him sound exactly like what cynics had taken to calling him: Clinton Lite. "The American people don't want us to tear down America's corporations," he declared in a talk called "Putting Responsibility First." In one healthcare speech Edwards repeated the word "responsibility" twenty-eight times. Outlining his tax-policy proposals Edwards came off like a Clinton puppet, mouthing the mantra "opportunity, responsibility, hard work."

Out of the other side of his mouth, however, Edwards talked with candor and gut-level understanding about economic, racial and class inequities. "How long had it been since you heard a Democrat utter the word poverty?'' says Chris Kromm, executive director of the progressive Institute for Southern Studies. "And who would have thought they'd hear a Democrat from the South making workers' rights a central campaign theme?" Edwards's refusal to speak ill of his Democratic opponents also struck a fresh tone. Progressives remained skeptical, but they couldn't completely tune Edwards out -- except for one not-so-little thing.

"I can give you the exact date," says Kromm. "September 19, 2002." In that day's Washington Post Edwards wrote an op-ed headlined "Congress Must Be Clear," staking himself out as the Democrat most gung-ho to sic the troops on Saddam Hussein. Swallowing the WMD story hook, line and sinker, Edwards commanded his fellow senators to "send a clear message to Iraq and the world: America is united in its determination to eliminate forever the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." Though he made obligatory noises about "an effort to rally the international community" and "real steps to win the peace" before invading, Edwards threw himself fully behind the Congressional resolution to authorize Bush's go-it-alone invasion of Iraq.

"Either he was a hawk, or he didn't know what he was talking about, or he was guilty of the worst kind of political pandering," Kromm says. "I thought, 'You're trying to appeal to progressives, but you've already lost them.' I'm not sure he ever recovered from that."

In an interview after the UNC speech, Edwards finally utters the words he'd assiduously avoided during the last campaign: "I voted for the resolution," he says. "It was a mistake." So far, so good. But he goes on, "The hard question is, What do you do now? Looking back, it's easy to say that it was wrong and based on false information. Anybody who doesn't admit that isn't honest, and that's the truth." So what now? "I myself feel conflicted about it," Edwards replies. "But we have to find ways -- and I don't mean just yanking all the troops tomorrow -- but we have to find ways to start bringing our troops home. Our presence there is clearly contributing to the problem." So does he agree with Senator Russ Feingold that Washington should set a withdrawal deadline? "No. Even if we're going to say that internally, that we're gonna have our troops out by X date, there's no reason to announce that to the world. I think that's probably a mistake." He doesn't agree, either, with Senator Clinton's call for more U.S. troops to finish the job? "No sir!" Edwards says, sitting straight up in his chair. "Did she really say that?"

Three Lessons for Victory

Edwards steadfastly declines to revisit the last campaign. "If you don't mind," he says, "I'd rather talk about the future." But as he touts his antipoverty crusade and dissects the morass Democrats find themselves mired in, it is clear that Edwards has done some hard thinking about the lessons of 2004 -- and about the political opportunity that presented itself in the terrible wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Lesson One: Stop thinking small. "I think in our effort to be elected, we've become minimalists, tinkering around the edges -- Our tax cut is better than yours, or, We'll give you smaller class sizes," he says. "That's not what the country wants. We've got to give the American people something big and important to be unified by. Republicans use big things to divide America. I think we can use big things to unite America."

Chief among those "big things," clearly, is an all-out effort to conquer poverty. "Both sides bear responsibility for what's happened," he says. "During the Great Depression with Franklin Roosevelt, during the 1960s with Lyndon Johnson's great War on Poverty and Bobby Kennedy going through Appalachia -- we were the party that led the fight against poverty in this country. We've got to show some backbone and stand up for the folks who are struggling. We've done it in the past, but it's been a while."

Which brings us to Lesson Two: Democrats can't afford to keep ceding the "values vote." Here again, Edwards sees his antipoverty crusade as a step in the right direction. "In a country of our wealth, to have 37 million people living in poverty? It's a huge moral issue," he says. "There's a hunger in this country for a sense of national community, that we're not in this thing by ourselves. There's been a long period of selfish thinking. I think there's a great opportunity for us to be about a big, moral cause that's bigger than people's own self-interest."

But will that message fly among the evangelical voters who've twice put George W. Bush over the top? "Shoot," says Edwards. "I could go right now to just about any church in Alabama or Georgia and speak about poverty, and I know people will respond." Ferrel Guillory, a longtime political reporter who now runs the UNC Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, says that might be -- in typical Edwards fashion -- a bit too optimistic. "Edwards is not going to appeal to the religious right," Guillory says. "But he could make a strong appeal to 'values voters' who are not hard-core conservatives."

Steve Jarding, the rural strategist who set fundraising records running Edwards's PAC in 2002 before leaving the campaign in frustration, thinks his moral spin on the "two Americas" message has real potential in Middle America. "Let's face it: There are millions of families sitting down at the table tonight, parents working two or three jobs and struggling to survive. Are they sitting there saying, Thank God two gay people aren't getting married? or, I'm so glad the girl down the street can't get an abortion? That's not what's tearing their families apart. If Edwards will stand up and tell them that, he could change the turf."

Lesson Three is also about changing the turf: Democrats, who've now lost every state in the nation's largest region in two straight elections, have to take their message south. "Look," Edwards says, "the fact is, if you lose the whole South, you've got almost no margin of error in the rest of the country. But it's more than that. We have to make it clear we've got a vision for the whole country, not just blue states."

Edwards won't criticize his 2004 running mate, Kerry, who declared even before the Democratic primaries that he believed a Democrat could win without going south -- and then tried to make good on that belief, pulling Democratic national money, along with the Southerner he tapped for Vice President, out of every Southern state but Florida. Bush ended up winning every Southern state -- except Edwards's North Carolina -- by a larger margin than in 2000. "If you were in a state like Alabama last year," Edwards acknowledges, "you didn't hardly know we were running."

Conventional wisdom says that an antipoverty, pro-labor campaign would be approximately as popular in the South as William Tecumseh Sherman (or Senator Kerry). But the new-model John Edwards is all about flouting conventional Democratic thinking. And Guillory, for one, believes economic populism can work in Dixie as textile mills and furniture factories continue to close down. "There's a heightened awareness of economic peril and dislocation in the South, resulting from shifts in the job market," he says. "There's a greater awareness that the affluence and growth has not been evenly distributed, that it's been a kind of creative destruction -- creating and destroying at the same time."

But Edwards has to broaden his focus beyond poverty to make his populist message a winner at the polls. "It's not just about the poor," says Pete MacDowell. "Where is he on healthcare, jobs policy, urban policy, immigration, creating jobs with alternative energy sources -- all these issues where the Democrats have just been saying and doing zero?"

Edwards says his New America Initiative will address the middle-class squeeze as well as poverty. But he thinks the key to Southern votes involves something that transcends policy positions. "These are the kinds of people that respond to strength and leadership," he says. "They want leaders who have the backbone to stand up for something. We're not Republicans. When we try to be some lighter version of what we are, which is what happens over and over, it's devastating to Democrats. Why would they choose us?"

Tough Questions, and the Next Challenge

For Democrats looking to 2008, of course, the question is somewhat different: Why choose Edwards? For all the cogency of his diagnosis of what ails the Democrats, and all the undeniable passion of his antipoverty campaign, even Edwards's admirers wonder whether he's chosen the right pilot program for "thinking big again." And even as he drowns those "insincerity" and "shallowness" whispers in a sea of noble intentions and bright proposals, Edwards still manages to revive the old, stubborn doubts.

Just before the Opportunity Rocks tour took flight, BusinessWeek Online broke the news that Edwards, who had been vowing to "pour everything I've got into this cause," had been hired as a "global consultant" for Fortress Investment Group, a global asset-management firm. So while he set out to inspire college students, Edwards found himself answering a fresh batch of hard questions. "This is another thing that I'm doing that'll take a relatively small amount of time," he protested after the UNC speech. "It's an opportunity for me to explore sort of what's happening with the global economy." Asked another hard question -- Is it realistic to talk about "eradicating" poverty? -- Edwards resorts to pie-in-the-sky. "Of course it's realistic," he says, flashing an incredulous look. "It's completely realistic. I don't see the eradication of poverty here in this country as this huge, mammoth thing."

Edwards is far more persuasive when asked whether his antipoverty campaign is just a political tool. "Look, to be honest, it's all very personal for me. I've seen everything, been everything, from poor to lower middle class, then regular middle class and then just skyrocketing, you know, when I was a lawyer. What happened to me is that I started thinking as I got older about this. I saw some of the people I'd grown up with going the other way, getting in trouble, having a really terrible time getting by. These were my friends when I was growing up and here I was, doing great. It was no great policy revelation, just a sense that something was wrong, that, Why am I the one who's gotten the good luck and they didn't?"

While Edwards insists that his latest campaign "ought to be nonpartisan," its success in keeping him in the national limelight will determine whether he can make a viable charge at Hillary Clinton in 2008. In one recent poll Clinton led the likely pack of Democratic contenders with 42 percent; Edwards was a distant second at 14. "I wouldn't put much stock in that, though," says Ferrel Guillory. "For all you read about Hillary Clinton, she's not scaring away contenders. She's going to lead in the polls right up till the primaries start, because she's the celebrity. But the people making her out to be inevitable are Republicans. They'd love nothing better, especially in the South."

Edwards has a leg up in a survey that may mean more. According to a Pew Center poll released in late October, his favorability rating among Democrats not only bests Hillary's, 68 to 59 percent, but even that of the original Clinton, Bill, who stands at 64. And while John Kerry's unfavorable rating is a sad 48 percent among the Democrats who just last year nominated him for President, Edwards's "unfavorable" is easily the lowest, at 32 -- and the survey showed he's the best liked, and least loathed, among Republicans and independents, too.

Up against Clinton II's New Democratic moderation, Edwards might end up grappling with a once-unthinkable perception of him as -- ye gods! -- an old-style liberal, more worried about the plight of poor black folk than struggling white folk. "His message has to make sense to middle-class voters," says Guillory. "He has to have the 'moral values' component, but he also has to be hardheaded. To be effective in terms of politics and poverty, you have to come at it counterintuitively. Clinton did that."

The time could be ripe for an economic populism that goes beyond Clinton's piecemeal approach. "Circumstances beyond John's control may have elevated his central issue of poverty to where it can catapult him politically," says Steve Jarding. "Those images from New Orleans, not unlike when the planes hit the towers in New York -- they'll be seared into people's minds for a while. America was embarrassed by it. We've been told for so long that the government is the enemy. Now people see that we need it; it's just not working."

Edwards's great challenge, finally, may be convincing the skeptical millions that he's the one who can make things work. "He's raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years," says Guillory. "You've got to give him credit for that. And given the shallowness of his experience in politics, the way he vaulted right over the lower rungs of the ladder -- it's an amazing story. But now that he's there, he's got to do more than make us laugh and make us cry. He's got to paint a clearer picture of where he's going to take the country."

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