Buchanan sees Ga. as 'New Hampshire of the South' GOP challenger courts crossover vote

February 25, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

ELLIJAY, Ga. -- Calling Georgia "the New Hampshire of the South," conservative pundit Patrick J. Buchanan is making next Tuesday's primary here the latest test of his challenge to President Bush.

Turning this state into a GOP battleground wasn't what powerful Democrats had in mind when they moved the election one week earlier on this year's campaign calendar.

The same folks who pushed up the primary are pushing Bill Clinton's candidacy now, and the Arkansas governor seems headed for an overwhelming victory that could propel him to a southern sweep one week later, on Super Tuesday.

But the Republican contest is stealing his thunder -- and, more importantly, some of his votes.

Mr. Clinton's well-publicized effort to avoid the draft in the Vietnam War has weakened support for his candidacy, especially in rural Georgia, where patriotism and military service are sacred values.

"A lot of people down in south Georgia don't want to vote for him," says C. O. Smith, a leading Democratic contributor who co-chaired the 1984 Walter Mondale campaign in the state. "But, who else?"

For some, the alternative could be Mr. Buchanan.

"I've got some Democratic friends who are going to vote for him," says John Henry Anderson, a former state Democratic chairman.

Unlike Maryland, another March 3 primary state, Georgia has no party registration, and voters can decide on primary day which ballot they want.

Despite Georgia's boom-state reputation and a jobless rate well below the national average, economic anxiety is on the rise here and so is anger at Mr. Bush. The president's team is bracing for an anti-Bush protest, though not on the scale of recession-weary New Hampshire.

The Bush strategy is to under mine conservative support for Mr. Buchanan by attacking his opposition to the Persian Gulf war.

"I think it is the most critical issue for us to hammer on," says Fred Cooper, the Bush campaign chairman in Georgia.

Georgia figures to be Mr. Bush's best state yet. He got 54 percent here in the 1988 primary. Rep. Newt Gingrich, a leading Bush supporter, expects him to take as much as 75 percent this time.

But Mr. Buchanan isn't looking for an outright victory, just a strong enough showing to keep his insurgency alive.

"We punched a hole in [Mr. Bush's] blimp" in New Hampshire, he likes to say. "If we punch a second hole in it, in Georgia, the whole thing may go up."

North Georgia's red clay hills are far from the granite peaks of New Hampshire, but Mr. Buchanan is plowing the same political turf he tilled for two months in New England.

He's running a sharply negative ad campaign, attacking Mr. Bush for breaking his word on taxes and racial quotas and painting him as a big-spending Washington pol and a "trade wimp."

With Democratic crossovers the wild card in the race, Mr. Buchanan is openly appealing for converts.

In 1984, conservative Georgians who had been expected to support Ohio Sen. John Glenn presidential candidacy ignored the Democratic primary and voted for Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary instead.

Whether that pattern repeats itself may depend on how hard the Democrats court conservative support.

Sen. Bob Kerrey has dispatched almost a dozen campaign aides to the state, and the decorated Vietnam War veteran could be a strong challenger to Mr. Clinton for conservative votes. But everything depends on today's South Dakota primary, where Mr. Kerrey badly needs to win.

Except for Mr. Clinton, none of the Democrats is putting up much of a fight in Georgia at the moment, though Mr. Tsongas is running TV ads and spent part of two campaign days in the state.

Mr. Tsongas impressed the audience at a big Democratic Party dinner in Atlanta on Friday night, and he got warm words of praise from former President Jimmy Carter during a visit to Plains, Ga.

But he also has been the target of a relentless attack from the Clinton forces, led by Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, the man most responsible for moving up the primary here.

Gov. Miller warned Democrats that the former senator from Massachusetts "would lead the party we love right down that well-worn path to defeat," and he erroneously portrayed him as an opponent of capital punishment, the political kiss of death as far as many conservative voters are concerned.

Mr. Clinton, meantime, is playing his southern roots to the hilt.

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