Michael Grissom, a mattress maker who plans to vote Republican in the Super Tuesday primary in March, has a slew of concerns: education, the economy, national defense and the homeless, for starters.
"What I want," he said during a cigarette break, "is somebody who will keep his promises once he makes them."
Such is the challenge facing the six Republican presidential candidates seeking to tap the huge cache of delegates in 12 Southern states holding primaries on March 8. By the end of that day, 50% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been selected, and the man in the lead will almost certainly be the one who connected with voters in the South.
So far none of them have, or at least so it appears after conversations with dozens of voters like Grissom and with politicians and political observers in the region.
"They're all saying the same thing, practically," said Jack Stack, a millionaire businessman and political kingmaker in Meridian, Miss. "I know the Lord is not a capricious person, but so far he hasn't revealed where he wants me to go."
In early presidential preference polls, Vice President George Bush had a wide lead. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey published in October showed Bush leading Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, 46% to 19%. None of the other four candidates--former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former television evangelist Pat Robertson--scored more than 10%.
But Bush's competitors contend those numbers reflect name recognition and a residual affection for the Administration of Ronald Reagan, who locked up the hearts of Southerners with his unwaveringly conservative social policies and huge defense buildup.
Once voters start to focus on the issues and on the question of who can best lead the nation, Bush can be beaten in the South, these strategists contend.
"Does he have whatever it takes to be President? Those evaluations matter a great deal," said Harold Stanley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, Bush's rivals hope to show Southern voters that the vice president is far from invincible, perhaps with a defeat in the Iowa caucuses, where Dole now leads in polls, and also in Michigan, where a Kemp-Robertson coalition appears to have the upper hand.
In addition, Bush may be vulnerable in a number of small states where delegate selection occurs before March 8, including Hawaii and South Dakota.
Scenario for Bush
Such a scenario would have Bush making a last stand in the South amid growing doubts about his leadership and his ability to win a general election.
On the other hand, should Bush win those early contests, the South could provide the coup de grace to his competition for the nomination.
"Bush is strong where Reagan is strong," said William Schneider, a Washington political consultant and Los Angeles Times political analyst. "He's stronger among Southern Republicans than among Republicans elsewhere. He's riding on Reagan's coattails."
Bush is also dominant in his own right in Texas, the largest Super Tuesday state. He lived and worked there for years and was elected to Congress from Houston.
Impression of Bush
What he must overcome in the minds of some voters, however, is the impression that he has not been his own man within the Administration--the dreaded "wimp" factor.
Bill Crawford, a Meridian banker, said: "Bush has the experience in government, but I'll be dad-gummed if I've seen him exhibit leadership in the last four years, and leadership is the key for me."
Between bites of chicken livers during a soul food meal, Crawford said: "I can't imagine us having someone as President who is depicted the way he is on things like the Johnny Carson show."
Crawford supports Dole, he said, because he "has a better leadership record" stemming from his Senate work and "comes across as a stronger leader."
Dole, sensing that the leadership question may prove his best weapon against Bush, frequently invokes his experience as Senate Republican leader, as well as offering gibes about Bush's eight years as vice president.
Beefing Up Appeal
To beef up his appeal to Southerners, Dole has sent his popular wife, former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a native North Carolinian, on several campaign swings in the region. He has also revved up a populist pitch, saying that economic hardship he experienced as a boy in Depression-era Kansas and his terrible war wound have given him compassion for the downtrodden.
Schneider said this strategy will win Dole some votes from Democrats, who can cross over to vote in GOP primaries in seven Southern states. But compassion "is a Democratic issue that won't help him with Republicans," he said.
Throughout the South, the issues that matter to Republicans are amazingly similar from state to state, according to several organizations that are monitoring political activity in the region.
"They are mainly domestic issues," said Daniel O'Connor, an analyst at the Atlanta-based Southern Legislative Conference. "When you try to talk to people about Nicaragua or El Salvador, they say: 'Never mind that, what about my farm?' "
'Not on Everybody's Lips'
Indeed, in Brunswick, Ga., Willou Smith, a state representative who runs four hamburger businesses, said: "The Contras are not on everybody's lips down here."
What are on their lips are the economy, defense, education and the environment.
Economy: The relative prosperity of the Sun Belt has faded, and the October stock market crash "puts a big question mark out there," said Stanley of the University of Alabama.
For Ben Slade, a bank president in Brunswick, Ga., big economic question marks are like nooses; he does not like them. "I'm for maintaining the tax cuts," he said, "and not raising taxes." So Slade is supporting Kemp, whom he calls "the father of tax cuts" because of his staunch support of Reagan tax policies in Congress.
Bush stands to lose the most if a recession hits in 1988 and the Administration takes the blame, but it is hard to imagine any Republican benefiting politically during a downward economic trend.
Defense: All of the Republican candidates advocate Reaganesque defense expenditures, which is traditionally a big issue with Southern voters, both Republican and Democrat. Some places remain heavily dependent on military bases to bolster their sagging economies. Also, the military seems a part of the Southern psyche, a need to defend and keep whole something that Southerners have been accused of destroying: the Union.
The focus on national defense "may have been inherited," said Charles Peavyhouse, a grade-school principal in Chattanooga. "It could have been passed down by parents. Southerners hate for this country to be a whipping boy or to be weak."
Mary Katherine Liebe, a Chattanooga retiree, said: "I'm for peace, but you better defend your country. I don't trust the Russians at all." And that is why she would not support Bush or Dole, both of whom favor the treaty cutting intermediate-range nuclear forces. She backs Kemp.
Haig's military career might have attracted defense-minded Southerners, but several voters and analysts said the former Army general remains plagued by the perception that he is power hungry and by his not having run for elective office before.
Education: It is an issue that taps into surprisingly deep concerns, even though voters realize that local officials, not the President, set policy in their schools.
Typical is Sheliah Shields, a volunteer at a Chattanooga homeless shelter. More and more of the homeless, she said, are young people who have dropped out of school and into the streets. She said any President can set a tone for local innovations that would keep the youngsters in school. Also, she said, the President can encourage tuition tax breaks for parents, such as herself, with children in college.
"Education is the No. 1, the No. 2 and the No. 3 issue," said Marty Connors, executive director of the Southern Republican Exchange in Birmingham, Ala., which has held town meetings in dozens of Super Tuesday localities to help the party identify issues significant to voters.
The prominence of education as an issue stems from Southern states' traditionally low national ranking, a deficiency that becomes increasingly glaring as the region grows more powerful politically. Southerners are "tired of being in the bottom 5th percentile" of the national rankings, said Chuck Murchison, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party.
Bush is the Republican candidate most closely identified with efforts to improve education because he supports increased aid, including a tax-free savings bond that would help pay college tuition.
Environment: Douglas Bachtel, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, believes that the New South provides a new opportunity for politicians on environmental issues.
Southern population increases in the 1980s have been tremendous. For example, he said, the population of Georgia rose 11.7% between 1980 and 1986--the national average was 6.4%--with most of the increase coming from Northern migrants.
"They are younger, better educated and have more money," he said. "They are concerned with quality of life issues, like the environment. A politician could make hay with that by being tougher with developers."
Neither Robertson nor Du Pont so far seem to have established a niche in those issues that will clearly help them on Super Tuesday. In fact, Du Pont may have hurt himself with Southern farmers by advocating an end to farm price supports.
'A Real Horse Race'
But Robertson is not discounted, primarily because of his religious appeal in a generally religious region. In Little Rock, Ark., Dorothy English, executive director of the state Republican Party, said there will be "a real horse race" between Bush and Dole in Arkansas but that Robertson--a Virginia native and the only Southern-born GOP candidate--will be "a factor they all know they're going to have to contend with."
And Republicans generally hope that Robertson will bring in new voters for the party, much as Jesse Jackson has done for Democrats.
If that occurs, the Super Tuesday created by Southern Democratic legislatures to bolster the chances of a moderate Democrat's winning the nomination may backfire, offering Republicans the chance to gather many new converts.
Contemplating this Super Tuesday harvest of votes, Jean Sullivan, a member of the Alabama Republican Executive Committee, said: "There are two things I thank God for: one is Pat Robertson bringing all these new voters in; the other is Jesse Jackson scaring the hell out of everybody."