Republicans scoop biggest prizes in Democrat heartland

The Republicans have captured two more southern governorships, in Mississippi and Kentucky, the biggest prizes in a scattering of off-year elections in the United States on Tuesday.

The outcome serves notice of how difficult is the task of the Democrats to regain a foothold in what was once one of their voting strongholds.

President George Bush campaigned in person in both states and was rewarded when Ernie Fletcher became the first Republican in 32 years to win the Kentucky governor's mansion, defeating Ben Chandler in the race to replace the outgoing governor, Paul Patton.

In Mississippi, the Washington powerbroker Haley Barbour beat Ronnie Musgrove, the lone Democrat still running one of the core states of the Deep South. Mr Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and longtime ally of the Bush family, won 54 per cent of the vote.

Mr Musgrove had tried to portray his opponent as a Washington insider, but Mr Barbour hit back by boasting that his business contacts would benefit one of the poorest states in the country.

Off-year elections can be an unreliable guide to congressional or presidential votes. But the electoral landscape in the South has rarely looked bleaker for the Democrats, who saw Al Gore - a southerner himself - defeated across the region by Mr Bush in the 2000 presidential race.

The results underline the difficulties of the Democrats in seeking to regain control of either the Senate or the House of Representatives next year.

In the Senate, where Democrats would normally entertain hopes of overturning the current 51-48 Republican majority, the party must first defend four southern seats - in the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia - where Democratic incumbents are retiring. The losses in Mississippi and Kentucky show the size of the challenge.

On paper, the House, where the Republican majority is 229-206, also looks within reach. Yet barely two dozen of the 435 seats are seriously competitive. And the Democrats' task has just been made harder by a congressional plan to redraw districts, adopted by the Republican-controlled state legislature in Texas. This will hand at least three, and possibly five, Democratic seats in the House to the Republicans.

Last week Howard Dean, the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, made a controversial pitch for southern votes by declaring that he wanted "to be the candidate for the guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks".

In a candidate's debate on Tuesday, as the votes were being counted in Mississippi and Kentucky, the former Vermont governor was assailed by his rivals for his reference to the battle flag of the old segregationist South. Mr Dean was unapologetic. "I am no bigot," he angrily told his opponents.

The flag was indeed a racist symbol, he acknowledged. "But a lot of people fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968." The Democrats, he argued, would never regain the White House unless they found a way of appealing to poor southern white voters. Mr Dean's remark may have been a gaffe, but Tuesday's results suggest it contains an uncomfortable truth.

On a generally depressing night for Democrats, the biggest consolation was the victory of John Street, the incumbent Philadelphia Mayor, over Sam Katz, his well-funded Republican opponent. The campaign was enlivened by the discovery last month of bugging devices in Mr Street's office. The FBI admitted it had planted them as part of a corruption investigation of the city government.

Far from damaging Mr Street in a city long known for municipal scandals, the revelation made him appear the victim of a "dirty tricks" conspiracy between the Republicans and the federal government in Washington. In the end he ran out a clear winner by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, to extend half a century of Democratic control of Philadelphia City Hall.

Elsewhere, Democrats took control of the New Jersey legislature, ending a 20-20 tie in the state senate, while Republicans held on to their majorities in the two houses of the Virginia legislature, although the Democrats registered small gains. In San Francisco, the Democrat businessman Gavin Newsom faces a run-off vote for mayor, despite a big lead over his nearest rival, the Green Party's Matt Gonzalez.

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