Vice President George Bush has built enough of an organizing advantage over his rivals in the South that he could effectively clinch the GOP presidential nomination on Super Tuesday, Southern political observers say--but only if he emerges undamaged from the earlier contests in the North and Midwest.
Neutral analysts conclude that, unless Bush is weakened in several early contests, none of the other Republican contenders have a network of Southern organizations powerful enough to stop him in the South.
And, even if Bush stumbles in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early battlegrounds, he is unlikely to be eliminated on Super Tuesday. It is more likely, the observers say, that the surviving Republican candidates would then have to fight a state-by-state battle lasting well into the spring.
'Paper Tiger Stage'
"Most of the candidates have the semblance of organizations, but not much more," in the South, said Marty Connors, executive director of the Southern Republican Exchange, a Birmingham, Ala.-based research organization that has held dozens of regional forums on campaign issues. "Right now, they're at the paper tiger stage."
As Iowa opens the voting season in just nine days, followed by New Hampshire on Feb. 16, Southerners girding for Super Tuesday say the candidates are expending more effort on the little battles up north than on the Super Tuesday war. Fourteen Southern and Border states will hold primaries on March 8, and six states elsewhere in the country will hold primaries or caucuses on the same day. By the end of that day, more than half of the Republican convention delegates will have been selected.
Ernest Angelo Jr., a GOP national committeeman and Bush supporter from Midland, Tex., said, "To a large extent, everybody's focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire. There is some basic organizing going on, but it's not highly visible--even for George Bush."
Harvest of Delegates
The conventional wisdom of the moment, based largely on public opinion polls, holds that Bush is likely to finish a strong second to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 8 and win the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary. If this happens, the theory goes, the huge lead Bush holds in Southern polls would remain intact and leave him poised to reap a huge harvest of delegates on Super Tuesday.
And Bush is the candidate who stands to benefit from the status quo. Connors likened his situation to that of the Washington Redskins football team. "It's ball control," he said. "If everybody stays the same, then Bush wins."
All Bush needs to do to remain in the race after the Southern primaries, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, is avoid crushing defeats in the pre-Super Tuesday contests. "If they're blowouts, the psychology takes over and demoralizes volunteers and they jump ship," he said.
Unlikely as that seems, many political observers refuse to rule out the possibility that somewhere, somehow, former television evangelist Pat Robertson will make life miserable for Bush. As William Schneider, political analyst for the Los Angeles Times, put it: "Robertson could upset things just by mobilizing his base."
Robertson's base is most apparent in the South, where he mixes religious appeals with canny organizing, in rural areas, of newcomers to the political process.
"His people are on fire," said Ed Bethune, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party. "He has that ready-made corps of people he's been talking to for years" on television.
In this region, there are two main divisions of GOP voters: moderate and hard-line conservative. Bush must share the first group with Dole, and Robertson seems to have almost sole control of the second. Robertson's most likely competitor for the conservatives is New York Rep. Jack Kemp, who has made only token efforts in the South.
In constructing his Southern campaign organizations, Bush has attracted a small army of Establishment supporters, including 25 Southern House members and several Southern governors. "If names could produce the nomination, it would have been over months ago," Sabato said.
Dole's Southern-state campaigns rely heavily on endorsements and financial support from business leaders, many of whom are familiar with him because of his former role as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The remaining GOP candidates--former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV--have practically no formal campaign presence in the South.
Elaborate Bush Structure
Of the three candidates who do, Bush clearly has the most elaborate structure, said Connors of the Southern Republican Exchange. In many of their offices, he said, "They have put up charts on the wall, showing a chain of command, but none of them have done grass-roots campaigning."
Not surprising, campaign workers tell it differently.
Wayne Adams, a Bush staff member in Charlotte, rejected assertions that Southern campaigns were preoccupied with Iowa and New Hampshire.
"It's sort of like sitting out there fishing," he said. "You're watching your own cork, but you also know when the other guy's goes down."
Dole officials said that 90 staff members are working in Southern states. The Charlotte office, in an office park on the outskirts of town, represents what people around here call "Dole's Southern beachhead." He must win this state, his opponents say, because his wife, Elizabeth, is a native North Carolinian. She makes frequent trips to the state and has an office at the headquarters.
Although all campaigns are close-mouthed about details such as spending and the timing of TV advertising purchases, the Robertson campaign takes mystery a step further. "No one knows how strong we are," said Scott Hatch, a campaign spokesman. "We have the largest campaign organization going right now."
With a great deal of relish, he said that Super Tuesday would pit "the grass-roots organization of Pat Robertson against the conventional politics of George Bush. It's going to be a dogfight."