NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The South is rising again in the battle for presidential votes.
Al Gore -- counting on big electoral votes from California and New York and fighting hard in the Midwest -- originally was expected to cede the South to Republican George W. Bush.
But as Democrat Gore's poll numbers climb nationally, he's focusing more on the region both candidates call home. Bush is governor of Texas; Gore represented Tennessee in Congress for 16 years.
Since Labor Day, Gore has stumped in Kentucky and Florida, raised money in Georgia and joined his wife, Tipper, in Louisiana. Daughter Karenna has campaigned in Tennessee, and Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, has spoken in Arkansas and Texas.
Bush and running mate Dick Cheney aren't worried about losing Texas, so in the South they've focused primarily on Florida, where Bush's brother Jeb is governor and 25 electoral votes are at stake -- the fourth biggest prize in the nation.
Bush's father, former President Bush, carried Florida twice; so did Ronald Reagan. But the Clinton-Gore ticket took the state in 1996, and the state has some 300,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Gore has been criticized in Florida for pandering to Cuban-Americans by advocating permanent residency for Elian Gonzalez, but his health care plans have gained him support from retirees. His Orthodox Jewish running mate could bring out more Jewish old folks.
"Anybody who writes Florida off in one column or the other is making a mistake," Gore says. Polls in the state show Bush and Gore neck and neck.
Analysts say Bush can't win the presidency without Texas, Florida and a good chunk of other Southern states and spokesman Tucker Eskew says the governor's message fits the South well -- "It will be one of the foundations on which his victory was built."
Bush's "compassionate conservatism" plays well in the South, and some Southerners -- particularly farmers and coal miners -- have been put off by Gore's stands on the environment and tobacco.
But the fight is far from over.
"The battleground is not only in the Midwest, but also in the South," said Ellen Mellody, Gore's Southern communications director. "The South has been an area that Republicans could count on without putting much money or resources into it. That's not true anymore."
One reason is that six Southern states now have Democratic governors. The South also is becoming less agrarian.
A candidate needs 270 of the 538 Electoral College votes to win the presidency. Texas would give Bush 32. Add Florida (25) and seven other states trending toward Bush -- Alabama (9), Georgia (13), Kentucky (8), Mississippi (7) and North Carolina (14), South Carolina (8) and Virginia (13) -- and Bush would get 129 electoral votes in the South.
Gore probably will win Tennessee (11) and West Virginia (5). He has a shot at Louisiana (9) and Arkansas (6), and there's a slight possibility he could pick off Georgia or Kentucky.
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