Democrats have historically reached for regional balance.
They have nominated a non-Southerner eight times since 1952. Five of those times, the nominee added a Southerner to the ticket, each time a senator.
When Republicans gained the Southern advantage after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, their focus became ideological balance. They did not necessarily define it by geography, but the result was the same: a nod to Southern conservatism. Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," co-opted from Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his 1968 presidential bid as an independent, had gone national.
"The South is more like the rest of the country, and the rest of the country is more like the South," said Barbour, a former two-term Mississippi governor.
Romney continued the trend with Ryan, a tea party hero who pitches himself as a tax-slasher and budget cutter. Many Southerners were wary of Romney during the primaries, and social conservative Rick Santorum won several state contests.
Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said the Ryan pick settled any nerves. "It sends a great message to conservatives," he said. "We are excited about November."
Jones, the Alabama delegate, said Democrats find hope in demographic shifts.
Barack Obama won Virginia and North Carolina in 2008 on the strength of young and non-white voters. Florida has long been a competitive melting pot. Jones said white Southerners under age 30 or 35 are up for grabs, as well. Presidential exit polls from 2008 showed younger voters in some Southern states split evenly in states where Obama still lost by wide margins. That group, Jones said, is less likely to base their politics on anything to do with race.
"That's one of the problems we've had in the South," Jones said. "We've always been against something, whether it was civil rights or something else. The Southern vote is so often driven about what we're against."
If Democrats work methodically, he said, to "define ourselves as who we are, as opposed to just not being the other guy," the party will grow and inevitably produce national leaders again.
Arkansas Democratic Chairman Will Bond said his state provides a blueprint.
Arkansas is the last former Confederate state where Democrats still control both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans cut into their majorities in the national GOP sweep of 2010, but couldn't take over. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, meanwhile, won every county on his way to a second term.
Bond said the Arkansas party, besides enjoying the afterglow of having produced a president, has focused relentlessly on fiscal responsibility, education and economic development. "We just have to do a better job of telling our story across the South," he said.
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