Democratic Hopefuls Find Peril, Promise in the South

Times Political Writer

The complex politics of the South--embracing racial history, conservatism and populism, prosperity and poverty--increasingly resemble a dangerous web for the 1988 Democratic presidential field.

Even as the six candidates compete for attention and votes in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, their strategies for Super Tuesday, March 8, are taking shape. On that day more than 30% of the Democratic convention delegates will be selected, most coming from 14 Southern states.

The consolidated Southern vote was created by Democratic officeholders there in hopes it would bolster moderate or conservative candidates, and thereby attract to the party similarly minded voters who have been deserting in droves to the Republicans during presidential elections.

But for the candidates it is a treacherous path. If they pitch too hard for disenchanted Southern Democrats, they risk not only alienating more liberal voters in other regions but also the primary voters who have turned out in the South in recent elections, many of whom are liberal or populist.

"In the South, the Democratic candidates have to combine enough progressive positions to turn out both blacks and blue-collar whites with enough conservative positions to keep from alienating middle-class whites," says University of North Carolina political science professor Merle Black.

"How you do that without appearing philosophically inconsistent is the million-dollar question."

Moreover, the five white Democratic candidates could find themselves fighting it out in a very small universe if, as many analysts predict, the Rev. Jesse Jackson gets most of the large black vote in the Southern primaries.

The white turnout in these primaries in the last two presidential elections has been very low--around 20%, according to Atlanta-based pollster Claibourne H. Darden Jr.

Active Party People

"The whites who voted in the 1984 Democratic primaries were strong Democrats--active party people, union members, teachers, feminists, with a smattering of young people attracted to Gary Hart," said Bert Lance, former chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party and former adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

Lance and others note that the people who did not vote in the 1984 Southern Democratic primaries in any numbers were the more conservative Democrats wooed by Ohio Sen. John Glenn and now being courted by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.

Lance sees pretty much the same scenario in 1988 with one new wrinkle: He thinks there could also be a surprisingly high turnout of another group of whites--"the forlorn and the forgotten, the people who have suffered under Reagan."

That would appear to bode well for the more populist white Democratic candidates, those who advocate government programs designed to lift disadvantaged people into the middle class. But Lance, who is an unofficial adviser to Jackson, argues that the white candidates will be surprised by how well Jackson competes with them for the economically depressed white Democrats.

The emerging strategies of the six Democratic contenders:

--Jackson: He is appealing to the angry and the economically dispossessed in a region where plants have closed or stopped expanding and small farmers have suffered even as such cities as Atlanta and Charlotte have boomed. He advocates tapping private pension plans for $2 trillion to finance housing, transit and jobs, and would make "repression of workers' rights" overseas grounds for some form of protection for competing domestic industry.

--Gore: In recent months he has made the South the key to his winning the nomination. Although his record shows him to be not much more conservative than the other candidates on defense issues, he has made a major appeal to patriotic Southerners by calling for a strong U.S. military posture and for, among other things, continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"Gore is going for those more conservative white Democrats who have pretty much stopped voting in our party's primaries," said Lance, who does not think the strategy will work any better for Gore than it did for Glenn in 1984.

New South Ethic

But Black, who recently published a book with his brother, Earl, on the modern South, "Politics and Society in the South," says he thinks there is a more moderate Democratic vote in the region for Gore--people in the cities and suburbs who will be drawn to his youth and to his upbringing in the New South ethic of racial harmony and modernization.

Gore has signed up a number of Democratic officials at the level of mayor and state representative, a strategy that former Democratic National Chairman Robert S. Strauss believes will help him get out his message and turn out his vote.

--Illinois Sen. Paul Simon: Of all the Democrats, he has the most populist message. He proudly recalls "the great Democratic tradition" of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and promises extensive federal aid for education, health care and employment.

"After Jackson, Simon is probably the best positioned with the people who tend to turn out in Southern Democratic primaries," Black said. "But I think he would have real problems down here in the general election."

Simon disputes that, noting that in his House and Senate races he has drawn conservative votes in his home base of southern, or "Dixie," Illinois. He also argues that his co-authorship of a balanced budget amendment will appeal to fiscal conservatives in the South. He faces the problem of inconsistency, though, by also calling for an $8-billion jobs program, among other liberal proposals.

Less Aggressive Stance

His dovish positions on arms control and foreign affairs--he would halt the development of new weapons systems and seek a less aggressive U.S. stance in the Persian Gulf--could also hurt him in the South.

--Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis: Northeastern liberals have their own problems in the South, but the candidate's son, John, says that there is a populist vote for Dukakis in the region's primaries because "our message of economic opportunities for all resonates especially well in parts of the South that have not shared in the prosperity of the two coasts."

Dukakis is the best financed of the candidates and that has allowed him to open campaign offices in a number of states. Black and others see his strong states as Florida, with its sizable population of former Northeasterners, and possibly North Carolina and Texas. Latinos make up a big portion of the Democratic primary vote in Texas, and Dukakis speaks Spanish fluently and talks a lot about improving relations with Central American nations, especially Mexico.

--Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt: He expects to do well in the South because of the proximity of his state to the region and his visibility on the trade issue. Aide Mark Johnson says that Gephardt's call for tough treatment of unfair trading partners plays well in the South because many of its textile plants have been hurt by imports.

Very Similar Records

Gephardt's record on defense issues is very similar to Gore's but, in a swipe at Gore's recent effort to appeal to Southerners on this issue, Johnson says: "Dick just isn't going to suddenly highlight this for political gain the way Al did."

--Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt: He could also challenge in Texas if he survives the early round of contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states. He also speaks fluent Spanish and is an expert on Central America. And, like Dukakis, Babbitt hopes Southern Democrats will be impressed with his record as a fiscally sound but compassionate governor. But his calls for a needs test for government pensions and Social Security probably hurt him with liberals and retired military people in the South.

A recent Los Angeles Times Poll found that among Democrats eligible to vote in the Southern primaries and caucuses, Jackson led with 24%, followed by Gore with 18%, Dukakis with 8%, Gephardt with 6%, Simon with 5% and Babbitt with 2%.

Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis found another 14% of the eligible Democrats saying they would not vote in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday (they may switch over and vote in the GOP contests in eight states), and 23% who did not know enough yet to make a choice.

Some analysts predict that how the candidates fare in Iowa and New Hampshire could have a major bearing on how the Southerners vote.

Touts the Wisdom

As one put it, "Southerners don't like losers." The grouping of so many primaries and caucuses in such a complex region may have created a nightmare for the presidential candidates. But as the intensity of the Democratic races builds, Southern politicians such as North Carolina state Rep. Robert Hunter tout the wisdom of the Super Tuesday idea.

"Even if it fails (and a liberal such as Jackson is the big winner), it will have been historic because there is no question now that the candidates are spending more time down here and they are listening to what Southerners have to say," Hunter says.

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