Ever since many Southern white voters switched to the Republican Party, Democrats have been asking how the party can win back the South.
Gary Hart, a former senator from Colorado, thought they were missing something.
"I kept saying, 'Hello? There's half a country west of the Mississippi,'" Hart said.
Hart, a former presidential candidate, says he has been telling fellow Democrats for three decades that they should focus efforts on the interior West to make up for some of those electoral votes lost in the South.
Now, a political science professor from the University of Maryland has taken that theory a step further. Tom Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie says Democrats should make the South their last priority. After all, both Al Gore and John Kerry came close to winning without getting even one electoral vote from the South. Schaller says the West may prove more productive for Democrats.
"It doesn't mean that they wouldn't want to win the South as well, it just means that they can get a majority without much help from the South and, in fact, that's what they've been doing recently," Schaller said.
Schaller points to states that have been Republican strongholds in presidential elections: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. These states have elected Republicans for president in nearly all of the previous 10 elections.
But now, all four states have Democratic governors. Montana voters gave three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns the boot in November. And there have been significant Democratic gains in Colorado.
Tom Schaller says Democrats can win the presidency if they give up their preoccupation with the South.
"The Democrats, for the first time in 52 years, find themselves the majority party in Congress, despite being the minority party in the South," Schaller said.
But giving up on the South is naive, according to Don Fowler, a longtime force in Southern Democratic politics, and former Democratic National Committee Chairman.
"No Democratic presidential candidate has ever won the presidency without carrying some southern states," he said. "Never, ever, ever."
Recognizing the concerns of party leaders from the South, Democrats under Howard Dean's leadership have adopted a 50-state strategy. Instead of shifting resources from one part of the country to another, the party is hiring organizers in every state.
Hart agrees with that strategy.
Still, he has advice on how the West could be won.
"There are three parties in the West — one is Democrat, one is Republican, the other is independent," he said. "Political fortunes are made in this region by which way the third party goes — the independents."
Hart says those unaffiliated voters have a libertarian streak. They were attracted to traditional Republican philosophy of limited government spending and setting a high bar for overseas military adventures. Hart says you can see why these folks might be interested in candidates from other parties these days. But cool it on the props, please.
"We can smell a phony about a hundred miles away," he said. "We got a lot of practice. And, somebody thinks they can come out here, buy a new pair of cowboy boots and win the West, they better think again."
Hart says candidates will have to talk about what's important in the West. Voters there tend to be more concerned about natural resource issues — like oil and gas drilling — than the social issues that tend to dominate politics elsewhere.
Recently Democrats announced their 2008 convention will be in Denver. And the party has put Nevada's caucus on the calendar between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
It appears Democrats have learned one thing about the interior West. It's no longer just fly-over territory.