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Democrats' 2020 nominating fight turns in the GOP-run South

ATLANTA (AP) — When the top lieutenant to a presidential contender phoned Georgia Democratic Party chairwoman Nikema Williams recently to ask for a one-on-one meeting, Williams declined. "I'm sorry, but I talk to candidates; I don't talk to surrogates," she said, recalling the conversation in an interview.

Williams got what she wanted. By her count, she's had conversations with at least nine Democrats seeking the party's 2020 presidential nomination, and she expects the number to climb. That kind of attention is a testament to the growing influence that Georgia and the rest of the South has in presidential politics, beyond the first-in-the-South primary state of South Carolina.

It starts with the hundreds of delegates at stake — about a third of what's required to win the nomination — in primaries that will quickly play out from Virginia to Texas in the weeks after the traditional early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina being the process. And with a significant black population and diversifying metro areas in many Southern states, the region is testing ground for candidates to demonstrate whether they can build the type of diverse coalition any Democratic nominee would need to defeat President Donald Trump.

"We're going to be right in the thick of it," Williams said. Sen. Kamala Harris of California will be in Atlanta this weekend and has raised money from friends in the city since she first sought local office. Several candidates have been in Louisiana for recent national political conferences and to Selma, Alabama, for a commemoration of the 1965 voting rights march. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts took a multiday swing through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama this week following a trip to Georgia in February.

Meanwhile, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have ventured to Plains, Georgia, to sit down with Jimmy Carter, the 94-year-old former president who'd been all but forgotten in Democratic politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has campaigned for political allies in Alabama and Mississippi since his last presidential run in 2016, and he's expected to return.

The South is still mostly Republican-controlled, with Democrats in the governor's mansion of just three states: Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana. Democrats Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum grabbed the national spotlight but came up short last fall in their bids to win governors' races in Georgia and Florida, respectively. And a rejection this week of a proposed tax hike to extend mass transit into suburban Atlanta was another reminder of the hurdles still facing progressives in the region.

Southern Democrats welcome the interactions with presidential candidates and say they've earned it based on previous cycles: Barack Obama's early delegate lead in 2008 and Hillary Clinton's eventual winning margin in 2016 were built from wins across the region. But now, Southerners are seeing the candidates earlier in the process.

Warren's visit "shows that she cares about all Americans and not just those whose vote matters" in the Electoral College, said Valerie Latawiec, a 52-year-old Alabamian who was one of about 500 people who attended the senator's rally in Birmingham, Alabama.

The trend highlights African-Americans' influence in Democratic politics, with black voters likely being a majority of primary voters in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and large portions in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The primary already includes two black candidates — Harris and Booker — and could feature a third if Abrams decides to get in the race. And all the candidates, regardless of race, are working to tie their discussions of many issues, from reparations for the descendants of African slaves and criminal justice overhaul to environmental justice and health care access, to the black community.

But Bobby Moak, the chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, also emphasized that the region's makeup, even in heavily Republican states like his, gives candidates a chance to craft appeals that cross racial, ethnic and philosophical lines.

"It's important for them to hear us and for us to hear them," Moak said. Certainly, there are strategic complexities for candidates to weigh as they decide where to spend their time. California has as many delegates at stake as Georgia, Florida and Virginia combined. And with early voting and Harris enjoying a possible home-state advantage, some candidates may decide to spend more time there.

Sanders, for instance, kicks off a series of California rallies this weekend and considers the state vital to his prospects. For now, Georgia may be the biggest Southern counter to California. It offers more than 100 delegates, a diverse electorate and the deep donor pool of metro Atlanta. Texas and Virginia also are wellsprings of money and votes. But Texas has two local candidates: Julian Castro, a Cabinet member in the Obama administration, and Beto O'Rourke, a former congressman.

"I'm telling them all to come," says state Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, "but if they're still in the race (on the March 3rd Super Tuesday), I think Beto and Julian will dominate Texas." Virginia could add its own local favorite, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but more importantly, the state is still reeling after its Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, admitted wearing blackface as a young man and after sexual assault allegations against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who denies wrongdoing.

Nearly all the 2020 contenders — including McAuliffe — have called on Northam and Fairfax to step down, but state party chairwoman Susan Swecker said that shouldn't stop them from coming to the state.

"Ignore Virginia Democrats at your peril," she said, noting that the state has become part of Democrats' presumed path to 270 electoral votes. "And if they can't handle questions" about controversial topics, Swecker added, "then they shouldn't be our nominee."

Associated Press reporter Elana Schor contributed to this report from Birmingham, Ala.

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