Some Democratic candidates might feel sheepish about distancing themselves from their party's presidential candidate. Not Inez Tenenbaum, who Democrats desperately hope can win the open U.S. Senate seat in Republican-leaning South Carolina this fall.

Her campaign Web site prominently displays a newspaper article that says, "Tenenbaum has been careful not to become too closely identified with the national Democratic Party or with the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry."

Few Democratic officials in South Carolina or elsewhere are criticizing Tenenbaum's faint loyalty, however. They know that southern Democrats find it increasingly difficult to win statewide elections without distancing themselves from the party's more liberal policies and leaders.

They also know that this year's crucial battleground for control of the Senate is in Dixie, where Republicans are eager to grab five seats being vacated by Democrats. The Democrats' hopes, meanwhile, rest largely on moderate, independent contenders such as Tenenbaum -- along with Erskine B. Bowles in North Carolina and perhaps Betty Castor in Florida -- who focus heavily on local issues and doggedly avoid the liberal label and discussions of Kerry vs. President Bush.

Tenenbaum summed up the strategies in an interview this week, saying Republicans "will use every label to try to define me" as a classic Democratic liberal. "Fortunately, the people of South Carolina know me. . . . I think it will fall on deaf ears, that attempt to label me and try to nationalize me."

The stakes are high, the statistics stark. With Republicans holding 51 of the Senate's 100 seats, Democrats are retiring in five states -- Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina -- that Bush carried in 2000 (although his Florida win was razor-thin). If Republicans duplicate their success of two years ago -- when they won all four open Senate seats in the South -- they will put a virtual lock on their Senate majority and dominate the region's delegation, 18 to 4.

"For the Republicans, this is the opportunity of a generation," said Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist and co-author of the book "The Rise of Southern Republicans." Several other Democrats are adopting Tenenbaum's strategy, he said, because Kerry "does not look like a George McGovern, but he certainly does not look like an asset for those campaigns."

The southern retirements frustrate Democrats because elsewhere they see genuine hopes for gains. They are running hard to oust Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and to replace GOP retirees in Illinois, Colorado and Oklahoma. But Republicans could lose all those elections and still increase their Senate majority by sweeping the South.

Their easiest win, arguably, should be in South Carolina, where Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) is retiring after 38 years. Bush trounced Al Gore here in 2000, and Republicans control the governor's office, both legislative chambers and the U.S. House delegation.

While half a dozen Republicans vie for their party's nomination, Democrats settled months ago on Tenenbaum, 53, a former schoolteacher, lawyer and legislator who has won two statewide elections as superintendent of education. Supporters boast that she drew more votes than anyone else on the 2002 ballot, although they privately acknowledge that, with her low-profile office, she was not obliged to develop detailed positions on trade, the war on terrorism and other issues certain to arise in the Senate race.

After a recent speech on veterans programs at the State House here, Tenenbaum said in an interview that she will focus her campaign on jobs, education and health care. She already is on record supporting the death penalty, a constitutional bar to same-sex marriage and a ban on a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion. Those stands put her at odds with many mainstream Democrats.

Although she spoke in April at a state Democratic convention where no Kerry signs were seen, she denied a newspaper report that her campaign had urged the Massachusetts senator to steer clear of the state. "If John Kerry wants to come campaign in South Carolina, I'll be proud to stand beside him," Tenenbaum said.

Analysts say Tenenbaum, Bowles and Castor have learned bitter lessons from predecessors such as Alex Sanders. He lost the 2002 Senate race in South Carolina after Lindsey O. Graham (R) relentlessly attacked his opposition to capital punishment and to a constitutional amendment protecting the American flag.

"You've got to give Democrats credit for getting the kind of candidates they need," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "You're not going to have a conversation about the death penalty and flag burning with candidates like Inez Tenenbaum."

Still, Democrats face tough challenges in the South, where white voters have shifted in massive numbers to the GOP in the four decades since Strom Thurmond made his pioneering party switch in 1964.

Tenenbaum faces token opposition in the June 8 primary, but several well-known Republicans are battling for the right to oppose her. Polls show former governor David Beasley leading Rep. Jim DeMint, businessman Thomas Ravenel, former state attorney general Charlie Condon and others. A June 22 runoff is almost certain.

Beasley, elected governor in 1994 at age 37, soon alienated many backers by opposing state-run gambling and retreating from his vow to keep the Confederate battle flag flying above the State House dome. Voters ousted him in 1998.

In a recent interview in his Columbia office, Beasley made it clear that if nominated, he will portray Tenenbaum as an unacceptable liberal. Naming a Washington group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, he said: "Ms. Tenenbaum will not get away with selling herself as one thing when in fact she is another. . . . She is truly an Emily's List liberal."

But Beasley cannot tie himself too tightly to the Bush administration, because many South Carolinians blame the president's free-trade policies for the continued evaporation of textile jobs. "I look forward to convincing the president that he needs to reevaluate our approach on trade," Beasley said.

Political analysts say it is unlikely that Bush will lose southern states such as the Carolinas, but the recent dip in his popularity -- affected by the Iraq prison scandal and the loss of manufacturing jobs -- could take just enough energy from GOP tickets to let Democratic Senate candidates squeak through.

That is what Bowles, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, is counting on in North Carolina, where Sen. John Edwards (D) is leaving after one term. Like Tenenbaum, Bowles -- who lost the 2002 Senate race to Elizabeth Dole (R) -- stresses his independence from the national Democratic Party.

His GOP rival, Rep. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem, cannot fully attack that claim just now because he has intraparty problems of his own. Bush recently said he thinks the longstanding system of granting quotas to tobacco growers is adequate, angering many North Carolina farmers seeking a federal buyout that would help them shift to other crops. The comments embarrassed Burr's campaign, and they might become an issue that "could matter at the margin" -- where the race seems destined to be decided -- said Ferrel Guillory of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As for the other southern races:

* Louisiana, the only state that has never elected a Republican senator, has a crowded field to replace Sen. John Breaux (D). The leading Republican is Rep. David Vitter of Metarie. Democratic contenders include Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Neely Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur A. Morrell.

* Florida, where Sen. Bob Graham (D) is retiring after three terms. The Aug. 31 GOP primary features former representative Bill McCollum, who lost to Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2002; former U.S. housing secretary Mel R. Martinez; and Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. In polls of Democrats, former state education commissioner Castor leads Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.

* Georgia voters appear almost certain to replace Sen. Zell Miller (D) with a Republican, analysts say. Rep. Johnny Isakson leads Rep. Mac Collins and businessman Herman Cain in early polls on the GOP candidates. Democratic hopefuls include first-term Rep. Denise L. Majette and entrepreneur Cliff Oxford. The primary is set for July 20.

Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Inez Tenenbaum (D) is running in GOP-leaning South Carolina.