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Dukakis Ventures on Reagan Turf in Deep South : Stumps at Mississippi County Fair, Barely Mentions Civil Rights

Times Staff Writer

Venturing into the heart of Republican strength in the Deep South, Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis Thursday tried with mixed success to appeal to Southern white voters by stealing a few pages from the Gipper’s playbook.

Stumping where Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign, Dukakis traveled to the Neshoba County fair, addressing a mostly white crowd of several thousand Mississippians, many enthusiastically waving signs for GOP Senate nominee Trent Lott and a few sporting buttons for Vice President George Bush.

Dukakis’ appearance did draw some sharp contrasts with Reagan’s triumphal address to a crowd of more than 10,000 here eight years ago.

Supports Civil Rights

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He proclaimed support for civil rights where Reagan in 1980 declared “I believe in states’ rights.” And he pushed his by now familiar theme that Republicans are asking the nation to “settle for a Swiss cheese economy.”

But Dukakis’ mention of civil rights was one brief line in the middle of a 20-minute speech, and he omitted any mention of the three civil rights workers, two Jews and a black, whose murder here in 1964 outraged the nation.

Thursday was the 24th anniversary of the day their bodies were discovered, 9 miles from where Dukakis spoke.

The speech--the first event of a three-day trip that took him later in the day to Los Angeles for a speech on the environment--demonstrated how Dukakis has tried to expropriate the winning themes of patriotism and national strength that Republicans once thought they had a copyright on.

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Uses Olympics Theme

Opening the speech, for example, he used one of Reagan’s most successful staples from the 1984 campaign--the Olympics.

“In this Olympic year,” he told the crowd, “our best athletes will be going to Seoul next month to do their best. And just as they’re working hard to be number one in Seoul, we’re going to be number one around the world.”

Touting his support for education, health care and economic development, he told them: “Let us work together to give every child in America the chance to go for the gold.”

Philadelphia and its county fair long have been sites visited by aspiring politicians. But it was the 1964 murders that forced the town into national consciousness.

The three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, 20; Michael H. Schwerner, 24, and James E. Chaney, 20, were arrested by local police, then released and sent on their way. A little while later, men wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, including one of the deputy sheriffs who had arrested the trio, caught them on a back road and shot them. Their bodies were found only after a 44-day search.

The three became heroes of the civil rights movement, and their names were evoked several times at last month’s Democratic National Convention, particularly by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Debate by Aides

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Dukakis aides had discussed specifically mentioning them in his remarks, but after considerable debate, chose not to.

Because of the symbolism of the place, Reagan’s trip here to begin his campaign and his declaration of support for “states’ rights"--the rallying cry of Southern segregationists, infuriated many blacks. But the wild applause from a nearly all-white crowd of more than 10,000 that greeted Reagan’s speech indicated the tremendous strength he would have among once-Democratic Southern whites.

Dukakis has hopes of breaking that solid Republican bloc and winning Southern states by appealing to whites while retaining the loyalty of blacks. In the last seven elections, the state voted for the Democrats only in 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran.

Judging by his reception at the fair, Dukakis has a ways to go.

When Norman Johnson, the president of the fair, introduced Dukakis, he referred to him as “the presidential nominee of the national Democratic Party,” a meaningful phrase here, where the Mississippi Democratic Party often has opposed national nominees.

Heckled by Pickets

And as Dukakis spoke, anti-abortion pickets heckled, while a group called the Nationalist Movement circulated pamphlets promoting “Christianity as the consummate religion (and) . . . the White Race as the supreme civilizer.”

“Real Democrats have red necks, white skins and blue collars,” read one sign in the crowd.

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“Liberal go home,” read another.

Other banners, while less hostile, were no less emphatic.

“Neshoba County is Bush Country,” proclaimed one banner. “For our local people we vote Democrat, but nationally we vote Republican,” said Margaret Fowler, wearing a Bush button, an anti-abortion sticker and carrying a Trent Lott placard.

“It’s going to be closer this year,” she predicted, “but still Republican.”

“This is a fairly good Dukakis showing for this part of the state,” said Malcolm White of Jackson, a Dukakis supporter, as he surveyed the crowd. “This is still a pretty Republican area.”

In all, about a third of the crowd appeared to be carrying hand fans emblazoned with Republican Lott’s name rather than the “I’m a Dukakis-Bentsen fan” fans the Democrats were passing out. Not all those Lott supporters were fond of Bush, however, and some told reporters they would vote for Lott and Dukakis.

Few Blacks Attend

A key to Dukakis’ chances would be black voters, who are a higher percentage of the electorate in Mississippi than in any other state. But despite efforts by Dukakis’ aides, few blacks attended the fair, which for most of its 99-year existence was closed to them.

Mississippi is the only state with a black Democratic Party chairman, Ed Cole, who got tepid applause when he was introduced prior to Dukakis’ speech. Two years ago, the state elected a black congressman, Mike Espy, the first black representative from the state since the post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Mississippi is also one of three states so far in which Dukakis has named a black to run his campaign, Vermont and Massachusetts being the other two. He, however, was not introduced to the fairground crowd. Instead, Dukakis was accompanied by his state coordinator, who is white.


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