“Any Democratic candidate will be destroyed in the South,” gloated Chris Caldwell in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard. Caldwell should head to Greenville, South Carolina, one of the most conservative areas in the United States, where Bush–bashing currently extends from unemployed machine operators to textile industry CEOs.

“Bush can forget about the Solid South,” says Roger Chastain, president of a textile company. “There’s no Solid South anymore.” Chastain told the New York Times that the massive loss of jobs (2.5 million nationally) since Bush took office, and anger over the stagnant pace of economic recovery, makes the president vulnerable in a region his party has long taken for granted. Lynn Mayson, a mother of three, and unemployed for months, put it bluntly: “I’m not going to vote for Bush unless things change. The economy has got to get better.” Both Chastain and Mayson are registered Republicans, part of the “solid south” that helped Bush win office in 2000.

The trade issue has become a lightning rod of discontent in these parts. Even the Republican chief executive of Spartanburg, South Carolina’s Economic Development Corporation, laments that the number of new jobs is not keeping pace with those lost, putting South Carolina among the highest-ranked states in percentage of jobs lost during the Bush years (#3 behind Massachusetts and Ohio).

With all the talk about how free trade has been good for the country, textile industry leaders in the region are so fed up with job flight to Mexico, Indonesia and China that they’ve vowed to withhold support for Bush in 2004 if the Administration doesn’t immediately narrow the trade gap. Chastain, like other South Carolina Republicans, says problems have reached such a point that he would consider voting for a Democrat like Richard Gephardt, a consistent foe of NAFTA. Mayson says she would vote for anyone with a plan to create more jobs.

One of the great surprises of Election Night 2000 were the early results that suggested Al Gore might win Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas–as well as Florida. Gore barely bothered to campaign in the South and he was anything but an ideal messenger for the Democratic Party in the region. But he did offer a dose of us-against-them populism in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention and in enough of his subsequent appearances to remain competitive in states where he was not supposed to be a player.

Indeed, Gore proved to be so competitive on Election Day that the television networks couldn’t declare the winner in many southern states for hours after the polls closed. At the very least, Gore tied Florida, ended up winning forty-five percent of the vote in Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas, and secured only slightly weaker finishes in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina. Only in George W. Bush’s homestate of Texas did Gore pull under forty percent of the vote.

The bottom line for Democrats should be clear: Fighting the next election on behalf of jobs, family farms, healthcare and education for all, a populist Democratic nominee could give George Herbert Hoover Bush a real race in a region that the GOP–and its media boosters–now take for granted.

At last Saturday’s rally honoring the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights, the Rev. Jesse Jackson recounted the narrow election losses Democrats have suffered in southern states and called for a renewed emphasis on voter registration and populist campaigning to close the gap.

“We must go South today,” said Jackson. “It is the red zone where we must go to win the election.” Jackson is right. If the Administration’s economic policies continue to destroy the industrial base of the region, the South need not be solid for Bush in 2004. In fact, it could well provide the margin of victory for the Democrat who is willing to challenge Bush with the old cry, “It’s the economy, stupid.”