The Massachusetts Democrat is trying to overcome cultural hurdles.

JACKSON, Miss. – From peeling crawfish in New Orleans to attending church in Mississippi, John Kerry is busy doing the Southern thing – no easy task for a Massachusetts Democrat who also writes poetry and hangs out with Sen. Edward Kennedy.

While many analysts believe cultural issues will sink him in the South the way they have other Democrats, Kerry said Sunday that the region has the same domestic worries as anyplace else.

“I believe people in the South care deeply about jobs,” he said before addressing supporters at Tougaloo College. “About health care – the costs are outta sight, too many people don’t have it.”

Education, the environment and the budget deficit are also important issues in the South, asserted the candidate, who said, “I’m going to run the same campaign in every part of the country.”

In recent years, Southerners – particularly white male Southerners – have turned away from Democrats over issues such as abortion, gun control, the sexual revolution, gay rights, affirmative action and a high wall of separation between church and state.

“It takes some connection to, some understanding of, some affinity for the cultural conservatism of the South,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

It’s gotten to the point where Tennessee native Al Gore couldn’t carry a single Southern state in 2000, depending on how one interprets Florida.

Some Democrats even believe Kerry should virtually ignore the South. Given the Democratic tilts in the Northeast and on the West Coast, supporters said, he should focus more on the industrial Midwest or the rising Hispanic populations of Arizona and New Mexico.

“Most of the South, sure, you can write off,” said Ruy Teixeira, co-author of “The Emerging Democratic Majority.”

At best, he added, the Kerry campaign should focus on Florida, given the oh-so-close and litigated contest there in 2000, and maybe one or two other states. Certainly Republican supporters of President Bush are confident about the South, believing voters there respond to Bush’s leadership.

“Have we been successful in the South? Yes,” said Bush campaign spokesman Danny Diaz. “But we’re not taking any votes for granted.”

Kerry planned his current tour in conjunction with the upcoming primaries on Southern Tuesday: Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and, perhaps most important to Democrats, Florida.

Explaining Republican success in the South depends largely on which side you talk to.

Conservatives tend to cite cultural factors: that Southerners are more comfortable with the GOP because of its emphasis on religion and family values.

Liberals tend to attribute the shift to residue from the civil rights movement: that many Southerners resent Democratic identification with blacks, Hispanics and women.

But simply ceding the South to Bush gives him a huge leg up in the Electoral College, analysts said.

Southern and border states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – total 172 electoral votes. That’s only 98 short of the number needed to win the presidency.

Kerry aides pointed out that one of his nine wins last week came in Georgia. He also won Southern primaries in Virginia and Tennessee.

The Massachusetts senator does have a few things going for him in the South, analysts said. One is his experience as a Vietnam veteran.

“That goes against that elitist, Chardonnay-drinking image,” said Teixeira.

Kerry is also making a populist appeal to Southerners, saying they are being held down on jobs, education and health care while Bush takes care of his rich friends.

“Certainly Kerry’s got an opening on the economic issues,” Guillory said, but he added: “Democrats have a hard time appealing on economic issues alone in the South.”

Earlier, speaking to the congregation at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Jackson, Kerry decried the “hollowness” that “tries to divide black and white, rich and poor, Massachusetts and Mississippi.”

“In fact, some people just want us pointing fingers at each other,” he added. “The reason they do that is so no one points a finger at them.”

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-07-04 1906EST

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