With Obama unpopular in the region, Democrats lack surrogates to help win the South in 2010

Suzi Parker Contributor
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Ask Southern Democratic politicos if they want President Barack Obama to campaign during the midterms in their state and there is a pause, followed by “Hmmm, no, I don’t see him coming here.”

Obama is in a curious place so early in his presidency. While he is the Democratic Party’s leader, he is also persona non grata in many places. While he campaigned for Harry Reid in Nevada last week, don’t expect him to show up any time soon in some Southern states.

“The president is always fundraiser-in-chief,” said Matthew Kerbel, political science professor at Villanova University and author of “Netroots: Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics (Media and Power).”

“But in the South, no, they [the Democrats] won’t bring him in, but elsewhere you can bring in Obama. I guarantee they will.”

The South is a region steeped in deep traditions, values and religion. It’s a climate where Republican stars such as Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin thrive.

So did Bill Clinton. Although he didn’t carry the South completely in either 1992 or 1996, he had one major advantage: he was Southern. Obama is a Yankee with deep Chicago connections who may serve fancy Southern food at the White House but with an arugula twist.

Such disconnect in the South isn’t the Democrats’ only problem. They also lack a stable of stars.

Even when Bill Clinton found himself banished by some state parties following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Democrats still maintained an impressive roster — Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, Evan Bayh or even cheerleader Terry McAuliffe. As they geared up for higher office, they were more than happy to traipse across the country for party fundraisers and Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners.

This year the possibilities are slim if Obama is out of the question. Hillary is traveling the globe. Bill is healing from heart problems and helping Haiti. John Edwards. Well, he’s busy with a baby. Bayh is bye-bye.

There’s Michelle Obama but it’s uncertain how she would play in states that she never visited during the campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid are about as popular as Obama in many places. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been mentioned given his political prowess and attractiveness to female voters. Vice President Joe Biden’s name is greeted with yawns, but he may be the Democrats’ strongest star.

But a juggling act also is occurring.

Many incumbent Democrats don’t want to be connected to the Washington establishment in a year when having D.C. cred doesn’t play well outside the Beltway.

“Every red-state Democrat candidate this year has one and only one objective: prove they are not like Democrats from somewhere else. It’s hard to do that when you’re standing next to Mister Somewhere Else,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who works extensively in the mid-South.

Don’t stand next to them, said Kerbel. One fundraising alternative, he said, is for progressives Democrats to follow the Obama fundraising model — online.

He cites liberal Rep. Alan Grayson, who is in a swing district in central Florida. He recently launched a “money bomb” on a liberal Web site and raised six figures.

“But the net roots won’t raise it for a [Blue Dog and Arkansas Democrat] Blanche Lincoln, but it will work for a candidate like Alan Grayson,” he said.

In the South, particularly, voters like to shake politicians’ hands and share a plate of catfish with them. So who’s left for the assignment? Some Democrats have grumbled Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s name. He has the right Southern qualifications and values but they confess he lacks charisma to bring in high dollars a household name like Sarah Palin can.

Others say it would almost have to be a rock star like Bruce Springsteen or a hunk like George Clooney in order to compete for dollars. And there’s no hint either will hit the rubber chicken trail. Or still, perhaps, Bill Clinton — if he could stay on the party’s message and not his own.

“The Democrats don’t have a starting pitcher and a bullpen,” said Charles W. Dunn, Dean of Regent University’s School of Government. “There is no one to turn out the crowd or raise the big bucks. The South has become a barren desert for the Democrats if things continue like they have.”