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Alabama’s Sweet Home in Colorado

Step inside “Sweet Home AlObama” this week and get a taste of the Democratic National Convention with a distinctively Southern flavor, complete with heaping platters of barbecue spare ribs, “Obama Y’all” T-shirts and plenty of speculation about what the 2008 election cycle has meant for the Democratic Party in a state that has long been a GOP stronghold.

This week, the Alabama delegation to the DNC has turned an out-of-business coffee shop just three blocks from the Pepsi Center into its base of operations for a 78-member-strong delegation, a handful of Yellowhammer State media outlets and about 300 other Alabamians who are in Denver this week looking to be a part of what is already being called a historic nominating convention.

Mixed in among the band stage, the rented margarita machine and tables piled with ever-growing amounts of convention swag are the Democratic leaders who make up the heart of a state party that hasn’t won a presidential election in Alabama since the political realignment in the South took hold in the late 1970s.

But at the convention-night viewing party on Monday, it was easy to mistake Alabama for a tossup state rather than one that is almost certain to vote solidly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Everyone from Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. (D) to the student volunteers from the Birmingham-Southern College chapter of the College Democrats were eager to chat about how this election cycle has given renewed energy to the Democratic Party from Huntsville to Dothan.

Interestingly, though, the candidates who have had at least as much to do with that renewed excitement as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are not in Denver this week.

Alabama is home to two hotly contested open-seat House battles this cycle as well as a challenger battle that Democratic officials are becoming increasingly optimistic about. And none of those candidates decided to make the trip to Denver this week.

In the Montgomery-based 2nd district, popular Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) is taking on wealthy state Rep. Jay Love (R) in a battle to replace retiring Rep. Terry Everett (R). In the northern Alabama 5th district, Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that state Sen. Parker Griffith (D) beats commercial insurance broker Wayne Parker (R) in the race to replace retiring Rep. Bud Cramer (D). And in the eastern Alabama 3rd district, Democrats are getting increasingly excited about the campaign of Josh Segall, the young attorney who is challenging Rep. Mike Rogers (R).

If the party is able to pull off a trifecta in these races this fall, Alabama would suddenly become a state with four Democratic House Members (the fourth being third-term Rep. Artur Davis) and three Republicans.

At “Sweet Home AlObama” on Monday, just the mention of that prospect made some Alabamians downright giddy. In the meantime, there appear to be several explanations for why Bright, Griffith and Segall all steered clear of Denver this week.

“In my opinion, they needed to stay at home and stay out on the campaign trail and keep raising money,” Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Spearman said.

Folsom added that Congressional approval ratings being what they are, candidates in both parties are adopting a strategy of emphasizing their independence from the national party.

But some Southern political strategists speculate that this cycle, many conservative Democratic candidates are staying away from the convention because they don’t want to appear too closely tied with Obama, a liberal black man who isn’t expected to play well in parts of the conservative Deep South.

Regardless of what the reasons may be for their absence, Alabamians in Denver say the state party will leave Colorado energized to turn Alabama into a battleground state on the Congressional level, even if most pundits consider it a red state when it comes to the presidential race.

Art Richey, the president of the College Democrats team that came to Denver this week, said the goal of his group is to reach out to students and young voters who are excited about Obama but may not know about the importance of Alabama’s Congressional races this cycle.

“Because while Obama may not win Alabama, he’s not going to get his ideas accomplished without Democratic Congressional Members in Alabama” and other traditionally Republican states, Richey said. “We’re trying to convince those kids that they’ll make a bigger impact spending three hours making calls for these Congressional candidates than they will by making calls for Obama.”