RICHMOND -- The two Southerners in the Democratic presidential race, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, have worked hard to win the primaries in Virginia and Tennessee tomorrow. But the latest polls in both states indicate a Northerner, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, is in the lead.
Southern and border states have been trending Republican in general elections, but political analysts say that the Democrats likely to vote in the primaries tomorrow are as interested in finding a candidate who can possibly beat President Bush as Northerners in the party. Kerry, the front-runner in the primary season so far, has drawn about a third of the support in published polls in Virginia and Tennessee.
"In Democratic primaries in the South, Kerry can pick up a lot of delegates because the Democratic electorate is not much different ideologically than the rest of the country, and it's open to the same momentum and electability arguments that are made elsewhere on Kerry's behalf," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.
Guillory said Tennessee and Virginia will test Kerry's strength in what he calls a "New South" that is more metropolitan than rural and has a diversified economic base, including a high-technology corridor in northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C., and the entertainment and automotive industry around Nashville.
To play a larger role in the 2004 nominating process, Democrats in both Virginia and Tennessee pushed up their presidential primaries from March to February. What they did not anticipate was that these two Republican-leaning states would become pivotal battlegrounds for the Democrats -- vital to Clark in trying to keep his campaign alive, critical to extending Edwards's momentum beyond South Carolina, and important to Kerry's effort to demonstrate he can win in the South.
A Mason-Dixon poll of Virginians released Friday indicated Kerry had the support of 34 percent of likely voters, followed by Edwards with 25 percent, Clark with 14 percent, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean with 8 percent. In Tennessee, an American Research Group poll conducted last week had Kerry ahead with 32 percent of Democrats, followed by Edwards at 22 percent, and Clark at 17 percent.
"In Tennessee, Kerry has the potential to show he has appeal nationwide and to significantly weaken Edwards's argument that he can't do well in the South," said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Since the middle of last week, Kerry has been running television ads in the major media markets of Tennessee and Virginia, a state where he has a paid staff of 10 led by Susan Swecker, a former executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.
"I don't think there is a secret code to unlocking votes in the South," Swecker said at Kerry's state headquarters in Richmond last week. "It's the economy, it's national security, it's who can best take on George Bush. I like where we are in the polls here."
Kerry held a rally in Richmond late Saturday afternoon, marking his first visit to Virginia in 2004. Yesterday, he was endorsed by Governor Mark Warner, a telegenic, Harvard-trained lawyer and cellphone entrepreneur who broke a 12-year GOP lock on the office in 2001. Warner became a role model for Democrats in the South by winning on a platform of fiscal conservatism and identification with the concerns of rural voters, including the protection of jobs and gun rights.
Meanwhile, Edwards and Clark have been dashing from campuses to veterans halls to black churches aboard buses rolling across the border from southwestern Virginia to neighboring eastern Tennessee. Both campaign as sons of the South -- Edwards was born in South Carolina; Clark grew up in Arkansas -- and each predicted yesterday he would do well in tomorrow's primaries and claim a share of the 82 pledged delegates in Virginia and 69 more in Tennessee.
Dean organized early in Virginia, but Friday he dropped out of the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner lineup to focus on Wisconsin's primary on Feb. 17. Clark, Edwards, Kerry, and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York shared the stage Saturday night at Greater Richmond Convention Center and helped raise $200,000 for the state Democratic Party.
Clark, who won the Oklahoma primary last week, has banked on a win in Virginia. He opened five offices across the state, hired 32 staff members, spent heavily on television advertising, and expected his military experience to resonate with the state's large population of veterans and active-duty personnel in Norfolk, in Virginia Beach, and around the Pentagon in northern Virginia.
John Montgomery Jr., a Richmond lawyer and West Point graduate, said he shares an Army background and a concern for veterans issues with Clark, but he was going to make up his mind after the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, when he would have a rare chance to hear and meet the candidates.
"Kerry, Edwards, Clark -- we really can't go wrong," Montgomery said. "Electability is very important, and I'm looking for the one who can win."
In Richmond, Clark spokesman Robert Hinkle predicted a good showing in Virginia. But Hinkle conceded that the campaign pulled most of its advertising off the air there last week to concentrate its resources in Tennessee, where the campaign believed the general had a better chance of winning.
Appearing yesterday on "Late Edition" on CNN, Clark said he expected to win either Virginia or Tennessee and continue his campaign at least through March 2, Super Tuesday. "We're going to do as well as we can, and we think we'll move on," Clark said.
Edwards, who won the South Carolina primary last week, has campaigned hard in the economically depressed textile towns of rural Virginia and Tennessee. Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Roanoke, Va., political consultant, said "it's a very fertile area" for Edwards's populist message and his biography of a working-class Southern boy who succeeds.
Saunders, a former adviser to both Warner and Edwards, said: "He's hitting his stride, and if he had two more weeks to campaign here on jobs and the economy, Johnny would turn out the votes. But there's only so much he can do in four or five days. I'm not predicting he'll win."
Interviewed on FOX News yesterday, Edwards said he hoped to finish at least second in Virginia and Tennessee and had no plans to end his campaign. "We're in this for the long haul," Edwards said.
Bush won Tennessee and Virginia in 2000, but a Democrat with the right economic message could give him a fight in the South in the general election this fall, said Guillory of the University of North Carolina. "Bush could be vulnerable in the sense he represents an elite, silver-spoon kind of America, as distinct from you and me," Guillory said. "The Democrats, particularly Edwards and Kerry, have begun finding a voice on how to come at Bush on that."