Kerry's army invades Bush country

Virginia might seem redder than red, but the Democratic front-runner hopes his military service will give him a beachhead in states like this, where Bush's support suddenly seems shaky.

By Josh Benson

Published February 10, 2004 8:17AM (EST)

To understand John Kerry's Southern strategy, you just had to check out Table 17 at the Virginia Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner here over the weekend: There was Norm White, B-17 navigator and World War II hero from the 8th Air Force in Europe; Rick O'Dell, a Vietnam Army vet with the 11th armored cavalry; and Del Sandusky, a gunner from one of Kerry's swift boats in Vietnam.

This impressive veterans' brigade, like those appearing on Kerry's flank on the trail, personifies how the front-runner hopes to avoid the same doom as every Democratic presidential contender in Virginia since 1964, should he become the party's nominee. By playing up his own history as a decorated veteran, Kerry is building a case that he is the true military man in this race. Kerry hopes his war hero status will inoculate him against a Republican talking point, one that could play well in the conservative South -- that Kerry's just a liberal senator from Massachusetts who can't be trusted to protect a vulnerable nation from harm.

This tension between the dueling public perceptions of Kerry -- war hero vs. liberal lawmaker -- has been readily apparent in the primary season so far, as Kerry has won every contest except those in the most conservative states, South Carolina and Oklahoma. Now, after rising to a wide lead in the polls in Virginia, and receiving an important endorsement from Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, Kerry is now in good position to pull off the symbolically important achievement of winning two Southern contests on Tuesday, here and in Tennessee, where he also leads in the polls.

But even if Kerry does win on Tuesday, prevailing over charismatic, populist Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina and retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark from Arkansas, the questions about Kerry's popularity here likely will remain. Would a Kerry win represent a real breakthrough into what has been an impenetrable Republican stronghold, or merely the mop-up operation on a nomination that's already his to lose?

Kerry's supporters, at least, see themselves making inroads into typically solid GOP voting blocs like Southern whites and veterans. "It's a major change we're seeing here in Virginia," said O'Dell, chair of Virginia Veterans for Kerry. "It's being driven partly by Kerry's record, but also by just a sense of betrayal by George Bush. I've just been amazed, calling up this list I have of veterans here. These are people who predominantly are uninterested or who say that they're Republicans, but I'd say 50 percent of the people I'm reaching now are for Kerry."

Many veterans are upset that Bush hasn't done more to protect or promote their benefits, and many are unhappy with his handling of the war in Iraq, O'Dell says. "They just think Bush is overtaxing the military, and that he's made cuts in Veteran's Administration healthcare. A lot also don't like it when his side starts damning Kerry, who they look at as a fellow veteran. I think Bush is becoming to veterans what Bill Clinton was to Republicans."

The general election groundwork has already been laid here for whoever the Democratic nominee is, say some observers, because of growing unease with President George Bush among his onetime supporters. It helps that there's not one, but two military men in the Democratic race who are forcefully opposing the administration's foreign and domestic policies.

The other Democratic veteran in the running is, of course, Wesley Clark. At Virginia Wesleyan College in the military town of Norfolk, where a Clark campaign organized a rally over the weekend, the Clark event was staffed largely by soldiers -- ones who served under the general in Europe and Panama and at least one active-duty officer just home from Iraq.

Taking a break from hanging signs, Clark's national veterans coordinator Larry Weatherford said, "I see an opportunity for a significant change in how these people look at the candidates. I think what Clark has done is going to make a difference ... I think he's helped change the perspective of the race by making it OK to talk about Bush's handling of Iraq without it being any reflection of patriotism or support of the troops. And I think a lot of swing voters are taking a second look at the Democrats because of the military records of Clark and Kerry."

John Edwards, who's also been running strong in Virginia, is not a veteran, but he is a drawling Southerner from a small rural town. Edwards has been working the state intensely, especially the rural and economically depressed regions in the south and west where Kerry has spent little time. Edwards, like his opponents, has thrilled Democrats here and elsewhere by his tough-sounding challenges to Bush in one of his areas of electoral strength. "The South is not George Bush's backyard," he told audiences throughout Virginia. "It's my backyard. And I will beat George Bush in my backyard."

Kerry's campaign is certainly taking advantage of his military experience, appealing to voters here by making a campaign premised on his personal war stories even more muscular. In addition to his now-standard lines about "knowing something about aircraft carriers for real" and invitations to Bush to "bring -- it -- on," Kerry has now issued a more direct challenge than ever around the idea that he, and not the "extremist" president, represents mainstream American values.

Kerry uses his military experience, too, to rebut GOP attacks that he's too liberal. "I have news for George Bush, Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie and the rest of their gang," he said at a rally in Richmond on Saturday. "I have fought for my country my whole life, and I'm not going to back down now. This is one Democrat who's going to fight back."

At the least, Kerry may be having success already in insulating himself from the stereotype that he's a wimpy Northern elitist. Conservative pundit and morality maven Bill Bennett told Fox News over the weekend that simply trying to stick him with a Boston liberal label won't work. "You can't do to Kerry what you did to Dukakis," he said.

That's all fine. But any progress Democrats feel now in breaking out of their Southern slump may not play out come November. A little history: The last time Virginia voted Democratic in a presidential election was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. (By most estimates, that also happens to be the last election in which the Democrats scored any respectable percentage of the military vote nationally.) Twelve years later, Virginia became the only Southern state to vote for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter. Michael Dukakis, the last New England Democrat to run for president, lost here by more than 20 points. And the all-Southern Bubba-Bubba ticket of Clinton and Gore went down to defeat here twice.

So whatever happens in the Tuesday primary, Democrats here probably aren't seriously counting on carrying the military vote or actually winning the state in November. Kerry indicated as much when he said, perhaps unwisely, recently that the importance of winning the South was overblown. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," Kerry said. "Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own."

What Democrats likely hope to achieve instead of an unrealistic Southern sweep is a steady and incremental erosion of conservative bases of support, not only in the South, but in other areas of the country with conservative-minded swing voters. "This is all about marginal politics," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's exactly how Karl Rove looks at the electorate from Bush's perspective. He's not actually trying to grab a majority of African-Americans or Hispanics -- he's trying to tack two or three or five percentage points onto Bush's showing in those communities. So with Kerry, the military side of the population votes about 70-30 Republican right now, and he might be able to reduce that by a few percentage points. That's what this is about."

Sabato also warned against reading too much into what happens here and in Tennessee today. "What happens here has nothing to do with November," he said. "We're in Never Never Land right now, but Virginia is still redder than red. None of these candidates can win here in the fall."

Although Virginia has stayed reliably in the Republican column in recent years, some state Democrats insist that something bigger is happening that political theorists and outside media aren't getting. Laura Bland, director of communications for the state party, pointed to the level of interest in the primary here as an indication that something is very, very different this year.

Attendance at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner on Saturday night dwarfed anything the Virginia Democrats had seen before, attracting 2,000 people -- several times more guests than in the past. "We've just never seen interest like this before, and I think it's really going to make a huge difference in November," she said. "We're going to see a lot of new people voting in the Democratic primary, and we're here to make sure they come back in the general."

Other local Democrats sounded equally optimistic, and their enthusiasm fueled sharp barbs at Bush. Barnie Day, a former state legislator from southwest Virginia, opened the night's comments by joking that "Somewhere in Texas tonight, a village has lost its idiot."

"I'll tell you, maybe it's George Bush who's helping down here, or maybe it's the Democrats, but they're really doing quite well," Day said.

Howard Copeland, a former legislator, Vietnam vet and Kerry supporter, said he sees a movement that transcends party lines. Virginia's primary is open to all voters -- the state doesn't make voters register by party. And Copeland hears that some Republicans will go for Kerry. "It's like when John McCain campaigned here," he said. "I crossed party lines to support him because he was one of us. There are 700,000 veterans in this state, a hell of a voting bloc, and now they're feeling the same way about Kerry," he said.

That may or may not be the case. But even with Kerry fresh off a sweep over the weekend of contests in Michigan, Washington and Maine, there are some Democrats who are somewhat less optimistic about their chances to attract traditional Republican voters if he is the nominee.

"We're definitely seeing lots of interest from Democrats here who were dormant before," said David Crain, a young Democratic operative who runs the Clark campaign office in Tidewater, a huge military area. "I think Clark or Edwards might be able to win here, and I think this party building will be really useful for years down the road."

And if Kerry is this year's nominee? "John Kerry has no chance of winning in Virginia in November," Crain said. "No. 1, he already claims that he doesn't need the South, which is a quarter of the country right there. And, fair or not, people here are just going to be afraid of a Massachusetts liberal."

This dim assessment of Kerry's chances in the South is shared by his Republican opponents. The Bush campaign has shown clear signs of concern about the president's standing nationally -- witness Bush's appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" after polls showed him trailing in hypothetical matchups with Kerry and Edwards -- but they seem largely unworried about any erosion of their usual bases of support. "I think this is a president who has shown these voters that he's a leader," said Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman. "They respect the fact he makes decisions on how to deal with problems and follows through, and that he's strongly grounded in his convictions. I think it's going to be nearly impossible for the Democrats to convince those voters otherwise."

Madden also doubted Kerry in particular would hold up as a candidate once the primary was over. "A lot of people are going to find out as the campaign becomes a two-person race that there's a canyon of credibility with regards to the person he's pretending to be on the campaign trail and who he really is," he said.

For now, Democrats are continuing to stump throughout the state to attract support. Edwards is seemingly everywhere, trying to make the most of his strength as a campaigner, while Clark has been stumping with all the intensity of a candidate fighting for his survival. Meanwhile, Kerry has been doing his best to get to the corners of the state that he has largely ignored until now.

On Monday morning, Kerry was in Roanoke in southwest Virginia, talking to about 300 people who turned out in the cold to see him. He was introduced in a throaty bellow by International Association of Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger, who urged the crowd to vote for a candidate "who knows what the words 'service,' 'honor' and 'courage' really mean."

Kerry took the stage and picked up where Schaitberger left off, saying he would "fight with the same tenacity, with the same focus, the same commitment and sense of duty" that he has demonstrated throughout his career.

David Cook, a local emergency medical technician, veteran and active reservist said afterward he had heard enough to vote for Kerry in the primary because of his promises to improve medical care for families of veterans. His own family, he said, didn't have enough money even for basic care. Asked if he also planned to vote for Kerry in November, he said, "It depends on what he does. I'm just going to have to wait and see."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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