Southerners size up Dean’s chances

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(Host) For Howard Dean, South Carolina is an important early primary in his quest for the presidency. But the former Vermont governor faces low name recognition and a crowded field of Democrats in the South. It’s also a big question how voters there will react to Vermont’s civil union law, which Dean signed.

VPR’s John Dillon talked with some South Carolina voters and filed this report.

(Dillon) Tom Locklair is a longtime South Carolina Democrat from West Columbia. He’s a computer technician, a Vietnam War veteran, and he’s plugged into party politics. Locklair is a potential Howard Dean voter. The trouble is, he didn’t know his name.

(Locklair) “Nobody knows him. I didn’t know him. Matter of fact, I looked in the paper wrong and I didn’t know his last name was Dean. I thought it was- not Dukakis, but something like it.”

(Dillon) Locklair talks about the crowded field of nine candidates as he stands outside a fish fry held in a downtown Columbia parking garage. The annual party is hosted by South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. This year, it’s a chance for voters to meet the presidential candidates.

Locklair saw Dean in a TV interview as he was heading out to the fish fry. He likes what Dean had to say about President Bush’s tax cuts. The former governor warned that cuts in federal taxes offer false hope for taxpayers, because he says they’ll lead to steep increases in state and local taxes.

(Locklair) “He’s caught my attention. Let’s put it this way; I was looking at three, now I’m looking at four.”

(Dillon) The other candidates on Locklair’s list are Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt. Locklair says he likes the fact that Dean is a former governor with executive experience.

(Locklair) “But he’s going to have to work real hard. He’s got to get his name out there.”

(Dillon) Lack of name recognition is a major disadvantage for Dean in the South. His image as a New England liberal is another. And a third problem may be Dean’s support of Vermont’s civil unions law, which gives the legal rights of marriage to same sex couples.

(Locklair) “A lot of southerners will have problems with that. I mean you just wouldn’t do that in South Carolina.”

(Dillon) Another voter at the fish fry, Susan Nichols from Columbia, says Dean doesn’t have much chance in the South.

(Nichols) “I admire the fact that he wants to run for something that he believes in. But he’s delusional if he thinks in any way he can win this entire country. It’s just not going to happen. It’s going to be somebody from the South, and somebody from the Midwest.”

(Dillon) South Carolina voters like Locklair and Nichols are key in next year’s elections. The 11 states of the old Confederacy hold a big block of electoral college votes. And that block has moved solidly into the Republican column over the years.

At the University of South Carolina, Political Science Professor C. Blease Graham has studied southern voting trends. He says the Democrats can’t win unless they capture at least one or two southern states. Graham says Dean has to target two groups of voters.

(Graham) “One group is really the traditional Democratic voter, which means he has to learn the black community, become familiar in community organizations with community leaders, community activists, church ministers, these type of individuals. And he’s got to do the same thing among traditional white support for Democrats in South Carolina.”

(Dillon) Graham also warns that that the civil unions issue is trouble in the southern Bible Belt. He says studies of African American voters in the South show that while they may vote Democratic, they are very conservative on social issues.

(Graham) “On things like school prayer and corporal punishment, African Americans are as conservative as conservative Republicans.”

(Dillon) If Dean survives the primary, Graham says Republicans will have a field day with civil unions.

(Graham) “It’s cannon fodder for Republican campaigns. I hope that’s not overstated. It would be roundly contested.”

(Dillon) Dean doesn’t run from the issue in South Carolina. In forum after forum, he tells voters that he’s tired of the country being divided by race, income, or sexual orientation. At his speech at the Democratic Party convention in Columbia, Dean says the party in the South also has to appeal to white voters who have turned Republican in recent elections.

(Dean) “And this is what we’re going to say: There are 103,000 kids with no health insurance in this state. There are an awful people whose jobs have gone to China. There are a lot of people who haven’t had a raise in five years. There are a lot of people who need better schools; they’re not just African Americans – they’re whites as well.”

(Dillon) Dean’s campaign has worked hard to recruit key African American leaders. One of them is Peggy Butler, a Gulf War veteran and mayor pro tempore of West Columbia. She talks about Dean at a breakfast meeting of South Carolina Democratic women. Butler says she asked Dean about civil unions when he visited her church. She says she liked the answer.

(Butler) “And he was straightforward that it was to give equal opportunity to everyone, regardless of your sexual heritage. And it makes a lot of sense to me that you cannot exclude people when in their heart and their mind they’re one. And that’s what sold me.”

(Dillon) Dean’s approach in South Carolina is simple shoe-leather politics. Carleton Washington works as a Dean campaign consultant in the state.

(Washington) “What’s important to us is that we put him in front of people who have strong ties to their communities, that are trusted in their communities. Because truth be told, at least in South Carolina, there are a large segment of our population that follow the leader, those respected community leaders, people like Peggy Butler. So back to the strategy, this is very basic: Get him in front of people.”

(Dillon) Dean is a tireless campaigner. His direct style and message on health care resonate well in the state. But his competition has some distinct advantages.

(John Edwards) “I was born here in South Carolina. I grew up in the South, grew up in North Carolina right next door.”

(Dillon) Senator John Edwards mentions his southern heritage at every campaign appearance here. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts also has a compelling story. He won a Silver Star for his bravery in Vietnam combat. His war record will appeal to voters in a state with a strong tradition of military service.

Blease Graham of the University of South Carolina says Dean has yet to break through to the top level in the nine-person field.

(Graham) “They know Kerry; they know Gephardt. They know Lieberman. They know Edwards. I’d put him in the second tier at this point.”

(Dillon) Graham also points out that in the general election, South Carolina is dependably Republican. In the past nine presidential elections, the Republican candidate has carried South Carolina in eight: The only exception was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Still, Dean fights hard, one vote at a time. He won a convert last weekend as he was going to Congressman Clyburn’s fish fry. A homeless man named Lucky Frasier stopped Dean on the street:

(Frasier) “When he told me he was running as a candidate, I didn’t believe him. I said man you must be telling me a joke! And he said, no.”

(Dillon) Frasier says Dean got him past security so he could enjoy the meal of fried catfish.

(Frasier) “He said, ‘You hungry?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He say, ‘Come on.’ And then when we got to the place with the fish fry, one of the people didn’t want to let me in. And he says, ‘That fella there – he’s with me.'”

(Dillon) Frasier wore a bright blue Dean button all weekend. He’s a registered voter, and he says there’s no doubt he’ll vote for Dean in the primary.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Columbia, South Carolina.

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