Willie Horton vs. Sergeant York

February 21, 1992

Candidate George Bush wasted no time in appealing to the military tradition of Southern voters. The day after the New Hampshire primary, he was in Knoxville, Tenn., the home state of the legendary World War I Army hero Sgt. Alvin York, to praise the state's 6,700 reservists and National Guard members who served in Operation Desert Storm. His strategy is reported to be to remind Southerners over and over again that Pat Buchanan opposed the war effort.

Mr. Buchanan appears to be planning an appeal to another Southern tradition. He has indicated he will make President Bush's signing of the new civil rights law an issue. Michael Dukakis, presently residing in Florida, must view that with amusement, as he remembers the Willie Horton ads. It would be the supreme irony if an irresponsible use of a race-related issue were to do to George Bush in 1992 what he did to Governor Dukakis in 1988.

We believe the military card will trump the race card in Tennessee and the other Southern states that will hold primaries on March 3 (the same day as Maryland's primary), March 7 and March 10. The president is way ahead down South. The latest Texas Poll shows him leading Mr. Buchanan 81 percent-10 percent, with David Duke at 3 percent.

The civil rights bill is a proper topic for campaign debate, but we hope Mr. Buchanan is careful about how he handles this issue. It has a dangerous potential, for him as well as for society. He should be concerned about reports that in some Southern states, he is winning over not Bush voters but Duke voters, many of them actually disaffected Democrats, who are allowed to vote in Republican primaries in most Southern states. That is not a constituency an ambitious, true conservative should want to be identified with.

We assume we will be spared any racially divisive debate here, since the Democratic candidates who are seeking Maryland delegates more or less agree on the issue, and since President Bush seems to have the state to himself in the Republican race. There is no evidence yet that Mr. Buchanan will make a campaign effort in Maryland, a state with what his state campaign manager calls "inherent disadvantages." He meant relatively moderate views among most registered Republicans and a closed-primaries law which prevents conservative Democrats and independents from voting for Republican candidates.

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