With President Bush and insurgent Patrick J. Buchanan scheduled to campaign head-to-head here this afternoon, the riddle behind the next phase of the campaign is whether Southern Republicans can be persuaded to be "disloyal."
In a region where the words "Desert Storm" are still uttered with reverence, the axioms of politics suggest that they cannot, that the South should offer about as reliable a Republican army as the White House could hope to find.
Over the din of balls and pins the other night, however, likely Republican voters at a suburban bowling alley outside Athens, Ga., offered reason to think that, even in his once-solid South, Bush's success is far from assured.
In voices echoed in dozens of interviews across South Carolina and Georgia this week, the mostly middle-class Republicans gathered at the Showtime Bowl spoke of Bush with little anger, unlike the hard-pressed New Hampshire voters who seemed eager to send Bush a message about the economy.
But the Southerners' mood was no more than ambivalent, and their phrases were borrowed from Buchanan, not Bush. If they had not yet decided to reject the President, they were at least willing to listen to Buchanan.
Bush's advisers have made clear that they intend to use the March 3 Georgia primary and the South Carolina primary four days later to brake the momentum Buchanan picked up from his surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary.
In large part because neither state has borne the brunt of the recession, most political experts in the region believe that Bush will win both races. The unemployment rate in Georgia remains at about 3.9%, about half the New England toll; and even South Carolina, at 6.4%, remains well below the national average of 7.1%.
"Bush should get a reasonably clean ride," said Claibourne H. Darden Jr., an Atlanta-based pollster who specializes in the South. But, he added: "This is going to be a two-week blind date."
If the talk of the lanes was any guide, Southern Republicans may be discouraged enough to be flirtatious.
At one end of the Georgia bowling alley, 45-year-old Nancy Verner told a visitor she had voted Democratic just once in her life. She was no more than "satisfied" with Bush, she said, but saw little alternative but to vote for him again "to see if he can't make it a little better."
Not far away, 33-year-old Donnie Smith, the bowling alley manager, was remembering that he had voted for Bush in 1988, just as he had for Ronald Reagan twice before, because the vice president seemed to be "a straightforward person."
"But all of a sudden we got into the foreign thing, and he kinda forgot about the people. Everything done got out of whack," Smith said. Smith was not going to make the same mistake again. "I like him, and everything. But I just really don't want Bush to get it."
"I won't vote for him again," added Lari Cowgill, a 47-year-old mid-level manager at the University of Georgia, who said he would likely vote for Buchanan. "My general impression is that he doesn't care about anyone who makes less than $100,000 a year."
Outside, the parking lot was crowded with pickup trucks and big American cars, some with "Support Our Troops" stickers still affixed to the bumper. There are plenty of Democrats in these parts, too, but in the heavily Republican outskirts of this university town, many of the men and women who lugged their bowling bags answered as if in reflex that, yeah, they would probably vote for Bush.
But amid the T-shirts, jeans and ball caps--as across the Formica tables of Pat's Country Cookin' Restaurant in Aiken, S. C., or on the benches of a suburban mall--that first declaration of loyalty was nearly always followed by a second of complaint.
Sitting side-by-side with her husband outside the J. C. Penney's, 33-year-old Rhonda Robinson, a dump-truck driver at the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons facility, said she would "probably" vote for Bush again. But, she blurted: "I think they should tax the rich people more."
"The way it is right now, Bush has done all right," said 36-year-old Tim Kitchins, who runs an automotive equipment business. "But it seems like we're sending money to other countries when you've got to take care of your own first."
The votes here will be critical run-ups to the Super Tuesday contests on March 10, in which almost one quarter of the delegates to the GOP national convention will be at stake. The campaign begins today, when Bush addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston. Buchanan is scheduled to campaign across the state but was told he was not welcome at the event, aides say.
Instead, he has scheduled a news conference across the street from the auditorium where Bush will speak. Buchanan is expected to denounce his exclusion by the President he has taken to calling "King George" and by "all the King's men."
In South Carolina, the President will also face for the first time another Republican challenger, former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, in a race the White House hopes will demonstrate the limited nature of Duke's appeal. With Duke showing little sign of support outside his native Louisiana, the Bush campaign regards Buchanan as by far the more dangerous foe.
Buchanan aides said they intended to cast their Southern campaign less as a protest movement than an appeal to a conservatism with which they contend Bush has broken faith.
The Bush campaign, however, is already preparing a counterattack that will call attention to Buchanan's opposition to the Gulf War, opening a potent political issue in a region in which voters almost stand and cheer when talking about Bush and Desert Storm.
"Buchanan not only opposed it, he's still kicking us for it and I don't think that's going to serve him very well down here," South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. said in an interview.
Even if Buchanan can overcome these obstacles, experts say his most formidable task will be somehow to sever the bonds of loyalty that make Southern Republicans so apt to stand by their President.
"The Republicans have more slack in the South than they do in any other region," said R. Earl Black, a University of South Carolina political scientist and an expert on Southern politics. "You don't give up a bird in the hand for the sake of ideological purity."
What worries voters is the economic picture that still lies ahead in plans for Pentagon budget cuts certain to transform a region steeped in military life and dependent on its riches. The complaint at the tables of Main Street coffee shops and back-roads bars is that Bush wants to cut too fast.
But the prospect of far deeper cuts under someone else has dulled the discontent. Support for Bush's handling of the economy has dwindled, polls show, but less than anywhere else in the country. What Buchanan must overcome is what seems a powerful instinct to forgive.
"Bush is only one man," said 37-year-old Dale Robinson, his Air Force cap like a remnant of a uniform perched atop his head as he sat with his wife in the South Carolina mall. "He's only got one vote. They're just using him as a scapegoat."
To break down such resistance, the Buchanan campaign has already begun to broadcast radio advertisements aimed directly at South Carolina. In 1988, the ad reminds voters, Bush ran as a conservative who was "the life of the party." Now, it says, "the party's over."
Michael Graham, the manager of Buchanan's campaign in the state, said it would be unwise to hit much harder. "We definitely don't want to look like we're kicking a guy when he's down," he said.
Some of the reason for such deference is embodied in Campbell, the powerful Bush ally who has already enlisted every one of the state's Republican legislators in the campaign.
In 1988, Campbell masterminded a South Carolina campaign that enabled Bush to knock back challenges from both Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson. In a state in which only the most loyal Republicans usually vote in primary elections, Campbell has told the Bush campaign to count on a major victory.
Buchanan supporters have more hope for success in Georgia, where the state Republican Party is less strong. But even there, history suggests that a message likely to be most appealing to middle-class Southern males could go unrewarded at the polls. "Bubba don't vote in the primary," pollster Darden said. "Bubba votes in November."
Even so, the talk at Aiken's Country Cookin' Restaurant, where the breakfast special of seasoned salmon, eggs, grits and biscuits was just $1.85, was of local newspaper headlines that brought news of a "President Bushwhacked" in the New Hampshire primary.
But the conversation among Republicans made clear that if Buchanan is to score a repeat, he has a long way to go. "I'm not really happy with Bush," said 68-year-old William Barton, a retired textile worker. "But he doesn't have anyone really running against him, in my opinion."
A few tables away, 60-year-old Bernard Oswald, a state animal health worker, was saying it was probably a good thing that Bush got a "rude awakening."
Bush had made "some mistakes," Oswald said, and he wasn't sure he would vote for him again. But neither had Buchanan done much to impress him. "A Johnny come lately," he said.
PIVOTAL CONTEST: A victory in Georgia, the first Southern primary, is viewed as crucial to Bill Clinton. A18
Comparing Primary States
President Bush may face less voter backlash in Georgia and Maryland. But residents in the region, steeped in military life and dependent on its revenue, are wary of plans for Pentagon cuts.
Georgia Maryland New Hamp. Population (July, 1990) 6,623,000 4,860,000 1,105,000 Per capita income (1989) $16,050 $20,929 $20,312 Persons in poverty (1990) 15.8% 9.9% 6.3% Unemployment rate 3.9% 6.8% 7.8% (December, 1991) Active and retired military 141,495 114,213 12,531 personnel (includes Dept. of Defense civilian employees, 1990) Violent crime per 736 855 168 100,000 people (1989)
Sources: Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Defense.
Compiled by Edith Stanley, Los Angeles Times.