Dems look to South: Charlotte convention part of 2012 strategy

The Democratic National Committee announced the selection of Charlotte on Tuesday, rejecting bids by a trio of Midwestern cities hit hard by the recession — Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Louis — in favor of the more economically stable North Carolin

Chuck Burton

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 better 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 last 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," Kaine said. "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.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose home in Columbia, is just 90 minutes from Charlotte, lobbied hard to bring the Democratic convention back to the South.

Clyburn, the lone Democrat in South Carolina's congressional delegation, sees only a "very outside chance" that Obama could win South Carolina.

"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. "I've been in this business enough to know that the pendulum goes back and forth."

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.

Last week, the Republican National Committee shrugged off the Democrats' strike for Southern territory, pointing to their good results in November.

"Voters made it pretty clear that the Democrats' big government policies aren't the way forward for our country," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said 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."

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.

Democratic Party chairman Kaine, a former Virginia governor, said 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 grass-roots work is all part of the party-building process," Kaine said.