Al Gore proved that you can win the election without a single Southern state, if he’d only won New Hampshire,” Kerry told a group of San Francisco Democrats in March.

Is this true? According to a very thoughtful article in the American Prospect, co-written by Emerging Democratic Majority blogger Ruy Teixeira and Cliff Schecter, the answer is both yes” and no.” Yes,” because the most hotly contested states are mostly in the Midwest and Southwest, but No,” because a campaign that abandons the South would run the danger of driving the campaign too far to the Left, as well as hurting democrats in Congress.

Putting the Gore-Nader vote together as an indicator of underlying Democratic strength, and comparing it with the Bush-Buchanan vote, the eight closest states the Democrats won in 2000 and will have to defend in 2004 are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Using the same comparison, here are the eight closest states the Democrats lost in 2000, some of which they will obviously have to win in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. By these rankings, only two out of 16 states critical to Democratic chances are in the South. Compare that with six in the Midwest and four in the Southwest and you have a sense of the mathematical logic that is driving the Democrats to focus their 2004 presidential strategy outside the South.

The authors draw important lessons from a state Gore lost, Ohio:

A quick look at Ohio — perhaps the most coveted Democratic electoral target in the coming election — illustrates this. Al Gore lost Ohio’s 21 electoral votes by less than 4 points in 2000, and the combined Gore-Nader vote ran only 2 points behind the combined Bush-Buchanan vote. In that election, Gore got 41 percent of the white vote; 44 percent and he would have won the state.

The economic basis for such a modest increase should be there for Democrats in 2004. Heavily unionized Ohio (37 percent of voters are in union households, including 35 percent of white voters) has lost one-sixth of its manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, including a stunning 81,000 since November 2001, the official beginning of the current economic recovery. A strong critique of the Bush administration’s economic record should fall on receptive ears. It’s also worth noting that the Gore campaign basically abandoned Ohio in early October of 2000, shifting resources elsewhere; so, arguably, just having a candidate who competes in the state may get Democrats much of the additional support they need.

Finally, white voters in Ohio tend to be moderate rather than conservative. They are quite unlikely to consider themselves members of the religious right and are largely unaffected by issues like the Confederate flag. This will make it harder for Republicans to sway white voters away from their economic problems simply on cultural grounds, as the GOP can do so effectively in a southern state like Georgia.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats can relax and be as liberal as they want to be about social issues and cultural sensibilities. On the contrary, Ohio, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, is still one of the more traditional states in the country on social issues. And about half of white voters there own a gun and tend to be suspicious of Democrats’ views on gun control.

This means that the non-southern strategy, if it is to succeed in a critical state like Ohio, still needs the kind of values centrism” espoused by Bill Clinton. Yes, Democrats have to support bedrock principles like a woman’s right to choose, but that support has to be framed in moral terms these voters can understand (“safe, legal and rare”) and combined with moderate stances on issues like gun control (think gun safety”).

The non-southern strategy is not about running as if every state were California. It’s more about running as if every state were Ohio — true to the Democratic principles and priorities cherished by the base but attentive to the concerns of the moderate swing voters who can put you over the top.

It seems that this is exactly the advice that the Democrats (not just Kerry) are heeding. According to this Washington Post article, Democrats are unifying around a semi-populist agenda that seeks to roll back the worst of the Bush years, without doing anything too drastic, while at the same time espousing the same kind of value centrism” that the above article advocates.

But here is the question, can the Democrats stick to their plan? Already, issues such as Gay marriage are forcing the Democrats to choose sides. Kerry can’t continue to take a middle road on the issue when his own state’s Supreme Court has already taken a stand on the issue. Attempts by the state legislature to shove the issue to the side are bravely being resisted by activists and politicians. Assuming activists can successfully force the Democrats to move further to the Left on this issue, at the same time that the Right tries to use it to boos their own ratings, will it hurt the Democrats? Fortunately, polling data (for what its worth) suggests not:

Recent polls tend to show that, while the public is opposed to legalizing gay marriage, it is evenly divided on the question of a consitutional amendment.

… The Gallup poll also finds that the issue of same-sex mariage ranks dead last–14th of out of 14–in a long list of issues respondents were asked to evaluate for their importance in affecting their presidential vote.

Moreover, there seems to be evidence that a strategy of the Democrats sticking up for States Rights on this issue might work:

And what if the Democrats counterattack by saying that a national constitutional amendment is unnecessary and punitive and that states should make their own laws on the issue (as vice-president Cheney, who has a gay daughter has famously advocated)? Then the GOP difficulties on the issue intensify because, according to a January ABC News/Washington Post poll , the public supports the state law approach over the national constitutional amendment approach by a 58 percent to 38 percent margin. And that margin is 60 percent to 38 percent among independents and more than 2:1 (67 percent to 32 percent) among 18-29 year olds.