Facing up to the prospect that the South might again vote solidly Republican, top officials of Michael S. Dukakis’ presidential campaign gathered secretly here Saturday to help fashion a fallback strategy that will focus resources on the five Southern states where a Democratic victory still seems possible.
The officials reviewed polls taken in selected states after last week’s presidential debate and planned to narrow the Southern battleground significantly in an effort to forestall a feared Republican sweep, according to knowledgeable campaign aides.
The campaign now intends to focus a newly honed message at what aides call the “Big Five"--Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, the only Southern states where Dukakis appears to remain within striking distance. Officials directing the campaign’s lagging efforts elsewhere in the South were not invited to Saturday’s meeting.
Campaign officials have dismissed as ridiculous Republican claims that they are beginning a quick march out of the region. But their closely guarded meeting, chaired by political director Charles Campion, served as tacit acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation the campaign faces.
Nowhere in the South are the Democrats running any better than even. Without victories in the region, which holds 118 of the country’s 538 electoral votes, Dukakis would probably have to counter with a solid sweep of the industrial Northeast and Midwest. And even in the Big Five, things have not been going Dukakis’ way.
“We’re really sucking wind down here,” said one state director, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Throughout the region, the campaign has been put on the defensive by a Republican strategy that has sought to tag Dukakis as a liberal hostile to Southern values. “Labels don’t matter,” insists Larry Harrington, Dukakis’ Southern political director. But interviews last week with campaign officials, analysts and voters in the states where the Democrats have staked their claim suggest that the Republican attacks are sticking.
“There are only four words we need to mention,” boasts Tommy Hopper, who directs Vice President George Bush’s campaign in Tennessee and claims to be running 11 points ahead. (The Democrats say four.) “ACLU. Gun control. Furloughs. Taxes. Down here, one of those four is bound to hit home.”
Such wounding attacks put the Democrats in a familiar situation. No presidential candidate since Reconstruction has been elected without significant Southern support, and the Republican lock on the region has been broken in the past two decades only by Georgia’s Jimmy Carter.
Dreams that the Democrats might dominate again this year died with Dukakis’ nomination, but campaign officials continue to hope that, with Texan Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket, the party might score in a few states to relieve pressure elsewhere.
“Dukakis can win without the South,” said Times political analyst William Schneider. “But there’s no room for error.”
If the Democrats can build a Southern cushion, it will almost certainly be in the Big Five. Registered Democrats in those states vastly outnumber Republicans. And generally, Democrats in the region say, the Democratic Party in the Big Five states has been less polarized by race than elsewhere in the region, and white Democrats have proved more favorably disposed to stick with the ticket in national elections.
Moreover, said analyst Schneider, a populist tradition in these states might make it possible for populist Democrats to outvote the conservative Democrats who remain suspicious of Dukakis.
The Dukakis campaign saw other advantages from the start in the five states, and targeted most of them for intensive campaigning.
Kentucky Best Bet
Kentucky, perhaps their best bet, faces high unemployment and boasts popular Democratic state officials. Arkansas, another good possibility, faces similar economic problems. North Carolina’s economy has boomed, but unevenly, and Democrats hope that resentful have-nots will align with a substantial bloc of liberal Democrats.
The other two states present more difficult challenges. Tennessee’s Republican Party is virtually moribund, but the state remains deeply conservative. Georgia is strongly Democratic, but racial tensions persist, and Dukakis has not returned there since the Atlanta convention in July.
But Dukakis’ weakness in the region in the primaries--Florida and Texas were his only Southern victories on Super Tuesday--has come to haunt him.
In Kentucky and Tennessee, where Dukakis did hardly any organizing in March, newly arriving state directors were stunned last month to discover that they were barred by quirky state laws from spending funds raised by the Democratic National Committee. Admittedly worried, they have had to scramble to schedule in-state fund-raisers.
And because Dukakis remains little known throughout the region, the Bush campaign has been able to strike effectively even in the Democratic strongholds, launching harsh attacks that painted Dukakis as a man hostile to Southern values.
Frustrated Dukakis field workers such as Tennessee’s Joe McClean say that day after day they must face questions from voters persuaded that Dukakis is “some kind of wild-eyed liberal that coddles criminals and turns killers loose on women and children.”
McClean’s territory is western Tennessee, viewed by Democrats as the state’s crucial swing region. But the area is heavily targeted also by the Republicans, who sent Bush and Sen. Dan Quayle there for a mass rally in Jackson the day after last Sunday’s debate.
Even before Quayle blasted Dukakis from the podium for his views on abortion, the death penalty, defense and the Pledge of Allegiance, many Reagan Democrats in the crowd said they and their neighbors already knew what they thought of Dukakis.
“Around here,” said Bill Wells, a manufacturing employee, “folks see some city slicker from up North telling him he’s going to raise taxes.”
“You know, I liked him pretty good until he started talking about taking my damn guns away,” said firefighter Richard Hutcherson.
That issue has dominated the dialogue for more than a month in Kentucky, where the Bush campaign made much of Dukakis’ pro-gun-control position and the Dukakis campaign took out full-page ads accusing their opponents of lying.
“Either way,” said Bush’s Southern coordinator, Lanny Griffiths, “we win.”
Even in North Carolina, where the 1984 Senate contest between Gov. Jim Hunt and Sen. Jesse Helms was so bitter that politicians have been reluctant to engage in mud-slinging ever since, an onslaught appears to be imminent.
“We’re ready to go,” said Bush state chairman Bill Graham, the state banking commissioner. During the interview, he voices delight that a Jesse Jackson rally in town the day before received extensive media coverage: “Now we can go back to talking about three men on the Democratic ticket, with Bentsen the odd man out.”
With such an arsenal, said University of North Carolina political scientist Merle Black, the Republicans have a formidable advantage: “They simply have much more negative things to work with.”
That has presented the Dukakis campaign in the South with what its state directors acknowledge is a difficult twofold task. In the space of five weeks, they must blunt the power of the harsh Bush attacks and then project a compelling image of their own that persuades Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan to “come home.”
After Saturday’s meeting, the state directors declined to discuss whether the Dukakis message would be significantly modified. But before being summoned to Atlanta, they uniformly insisted that Dukakis’ national message--appealing to economic anxieties and emphasizing issues like jobs, health care and education--would find resonance in the Big Five once voters grew weary of the Bush attacks.
They noted that for the first time since 1976, the national campaign can count on the support of the bulk of Southern elected officials--a claim underlined by veterans of Democratic campaigns past, who marvel at this year’s crowded daises. One state director, Peter Goelz, even set up his Tennessee shop in a hotel suite to be within walking distance of the office of popular Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter.
Testimonials from politicians like McWherter and North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham--who has taken to proclaiming: “I knowwwwww Lloyd Bentsen"--leave the Dukakis campaign at least hopeful that some of their magic will rub off.
They hold out similar hopes for the influence of Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who won Super Tuesday primaries in four of the five targeted states. “We want Al Gore whenever we can get him,” reads a memo from the Dukakis office in Nashville to the headquarters in Boston.
But observers like North Carolina’s Black have noted in recent weeks that Democratic elected officials have begun to drift away from Dukakis. Most notably, Tennessee’s McWherter was the only Southern Democratic governor to accept an invitation from the Dukakis campaign to join campaign chairman Paul P. Brountas at a news conference after a governors’ conference in Sea Island, Ga.
There appear also to be symptoms of discontent among black voters. While rifts between Dukakis officials and supporters of Jackson have largely been resolved, officials worry aloud about a lack of enthusiasm in the black community. “Nobody wants to talk about the campaign,” said Tennessee legislator Lois DeBarry.
Amid all the worrisome signs for Dukakis in the South, campaign officials bristle when asked whether a rough ride for Dukakis was inevitable.
“I find it amazing that people have the gall to assume that somehow people from the South can’t accept a person from another part of the country as their leader,” North Carolina state director Paul Sullivan said.
But other Democrats believe he must mask his roots and loosen his tie if he is ever to salvage his prospects in the South.
“The task of the next few weeks,” said Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, “is to make Michael Dukakis into a good ol’ boy.”
THE SOUTH: A BIG BUSH ADVANTAGE Electoral Votes MISS. 7 ALA. 9 VA.12 S.C. 8 FLA. 21 57 Solidly GOP LA. 10 GA. 12 TENN. 11 33 Leaning GOP ARK. 6 KY. 9 N.C. 13 Tossup Needed for election: 270