WASHINGTON — For all of Charlotte's charms — a glittery skyline, a hip uptown, nice hotels and good restaurants — Democrats say they put their 2012 national convention in the Queen City to send a broader message: Republicans had best watch their backs down South.
"They're saying, 'We're going after your base,'" said political scientist Mark Kelso of Queens University in Charlotte.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said this week that the party has seen positive polls in both North Carolina and Virginia since getting smacked by the GOP in November's midterm elections.
"That tells us we ought to take the South very seriously just like we did in 2008," Kaine said in an interview. Barack Obama carried both North Carolina and Virginia in 2008, a rarity for Democratic presidential candidates, as well as Florida. "We're showing we're competing everywhere. We're playing on an expanded electoral map — not a shrunken electoral map."
The expanded map includes states that the GOP really needs, putting Republicans on the defensive, Kelso said.
"The electoral map doesn't work out if Republicans don't win the South," Kelso said. "Democrats would like to win a state like North Carolina, but they don't have to. So if they're competitive in North Carolina, they can drain a lot of GOP resources that would otherwise go to a battleground state like Ohio."
"It's a beachhead," acknowledged Robin Hayes, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and a former congressman.
The GOP, too, is looking south for its convention, to be held in Tampa, Fla., a week before Charlotte's the first week of September 2012.
This week, the Republican National Committee shrugged off the Democrats' strike for Southern territory, saying that the GOP proved it's more popular in November's midterm elections.
"Voters made it pretty clear that the Democrats' big government policies aren't the way forward for our country," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski in a prepared statement. "As long as Republicans continue to support less government spending and pro-economic growth policies to get our fiscal house in order, we are confident we will have overwhelming support from voters in North Carolina and the rest of the country."
Still, southern Republicans are paying attention.
"If they want to come and talk about their message, welcome to the South, President Obama," said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party. "We welcome the chance to discuss the president's record."
By choosing a Southern city over a union town such as Cleveland or St. Louis, Obama wanted to send a broader message to the rest of the country, said analyst Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.
"The Democrats hope it sends a message that they are a party that seeks to represent the entire country, not just New York and Los Angeles," Rothenberg said.
DNC Chairman Kaine said that even Georgia could be competitive in 2012.
"Even in states where we might not win, we think that having a convention in the South and doing a lot of grassroots work is all part of the party-building process," Kaine said.
Obama took the 2008 Democratic convention to Colorado, a state that Republican presidential candidates hadn't lost since 1992. Colorado went solidly for Obama by 8 points.
Still, Obama barely edged out GOP rival John McCain for North Carolina's 15 electoral votes, even with thousands of Democratic staff in the state and a more than 2-to-1 advantage in fundraising there among large donors.
Hayes, the North Carolina GOP chairman, said he'll use the Charlotte convention to energize Republican staff and volunteers against Obama's troops.
"This is a motivational, put-it-on-the-locker-room-wall kind of thing," Hayes said. "It's still game time."
Political scientists doubt whether a convention site truly translates into votes. Despite Obama's victory in Colorado, political parties have won the state in which they held conventions only about half the time in recent history, Kelso said.
Added Rothenberg: "The idea that you can go into a city for a week and have a whole bunch of parties and this is going to affect voters and they're going to say, "Those Democrats, I'm excited about them because of the convention,' — that's a stretch."
In 2008, Obama lost by only 5 points in Georgia — proof that the South isn't entirely a Republican stronghold, said Eric Gray, spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.
"Democrats have a long and storied history in the South," Gray said. "While there are plenty of Republicans out here, it's not a sure thing or a sure victory."
Democrats held their 1988 convention in Atlanta, but Michael Dukakis lost nearly every Southern state, and the presidency, to George H.W. Bush.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose home in Columbia, S.C., is just 90 minutes from Charlotte, lobbied hard to bring the Democratic convention back to the South.
Clyburn, the lone Democrat in his state's congressional delegation, sees only a "very outside chance" that Obama could win South Carolina, but he said the convention can energize Southern Democrats and build local party infrastructure.
"We're not in a good place in the South, but you know the comeback has to start somewhere, so why not start in 2012?" Clyburn said in an interview. "I've been in this business enough to know that the pendulum goes back and forth."
Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, captured a handful of Southern states in his races in 1992 and 1996. North Carolina hadn't gone blue since Jimmy Carter won it in 1976, when he swept states south of the Mason-Dixon line, except for Virginia.
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