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Dean goes South to try new strategy attacking Bush

Monday, December 08, 2003

By Jim VandeHei, The Washington Post

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean yesterday accused the Republican Party of purposely dividing the country over "guns, God and gays" and "stirring up racial prejudices" to win presidential elections.

Howard Dean plans to make a push into the South to court voters.

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"In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House," Dean said in remarks prepared for delivery in South Carolina. "He did it an a shameful way: by dividing Americans against one another, stirring up racial prejudices and bringing out the worst in people. They called it the Southern strategy, and the Republicans have been using it ever since." Republicans deny they divide the nation over race.

Dean said the time has come for political leaders to move beyond divisive issues and toward harmony on issues of "common interest" such as education and jobs. "It's time we had a new politics in America -- a politics that refuses to pander to our lowest prejudices," he said.

Dean -- who only weeks ago infuriated some African Americans for claiming he wanted to be the candidate of whites with confederate flags -- is increasingly going after President Bush on race issues as part of his own "Southern strategy" to win support in the region.

The former governor has rocketed past his rivals in New Hampshire, the first key primary state, and is neck-and-neck with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Mo., in Iowa.

Yet, even if he can win both states, Dean's surge could come to a crashing halt in the south from two fronts, Democrats say. First, several rivals are gearing up for one last stand on Feb. 3, when South Carolina, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona will give Southerners a strong say in who wins the Democratic nomination. If Dean stumbles, a new frontrunner could emerge.

Secondly, a large number of influential Democrats, many of them former high-level advisers to President Bill Clinton and state leaders, are growing increasingly concerned Dean's antiwar, anti-tax cuts campaign could doom the party's chances of winning back the White House and Congress. If Dean can't quickly exhibit an ability and willingness to broaden his appeal, especially in the South, these Democrats may join together for a stop Dean campaign, several said.

Dean himself is described by supporters as obsessed with his nascent strategy to win Southern states, realizing it could be a key to his success. In addition to planning to greatly outspend his rivals in several key Southern media markets, Dean is aggressively courting black lawmakers and then prominently touting their support once they sign on. He's also spending more time than his rivals in key Southern states.

In South Carolina yesterday, Dean, who governed a mostly white state and surrounds himself with few minority aides, appeared with Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., the son of former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. In several other recent appearances in the South, including Florida on Saturday, Dean has asked black lawmakers to introduce him. In virtually every speech he delivers, Dean accuses Bush of using "race-loaded" language when he talks about affirmative action, a concern to many blacks.

Rep. Jackson officially endorsed Dean. "Today I'm endorsing Howard Dean because he desires to provide food for hungry men and women, jobs, education and health care, and to strike a blow to lift all Americans to a new economic plane and a higher moral plateau."

Solidifying black support in the South is a prudent primary strategy, rivals strategists say, but it's Southern whites who hold the keys to success in the region. While far from a monolithic bloc, Southern whites tend to be more culturally conservative than those from other regions and place a higher value on a politician's views on guns, gays and God, according to surveys. The region has become increasingly Republican during the past three decades and a major troublespot for Democratic candidates. Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the only Southerners in the race, are considered by many Democrats to be potentially more appealing to voters in the region. Recent history is on their side: the past three Democratic presidents hailed from the South -- Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Lyndon Johnson of Texas.

Some Dean supporters privately say Dean's admonition for Southerners to stop voting based on "guns, gays, God and school prayer" is offensive to many voters.

"Coming to the South during the church hour on a Sunday morning to tell Southerners what they should believe is not the way to reach out to Southern Democratic voters," said Edwards.

On Fox News Sunday, Dean said he has "a more conservative position on guns than many Democrats." Yet his new approach is couched as a broader appeal that transcends cultural issues like guns and God.

In his speech yesterday, Dean said Democrats should move beyond divisive cultural topics and focus instead on issues such as jobs, education and health care, which appeal to voters of all ages, races and income levels. "If the president tries to divide us by race we are going to talk about health care for Americans," he said. "If Karl Rove tries to divide us by gender we are going to talk about better schools for all our children."

"It is only a movement of citizens of every color, every income level, and every background that can change this country and once again make it live up to the promise of America."

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