Black voters hold the key to Clinton's hopes in South


February 29, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER


One of the central mysteries of the campaign here is the likely turnout of black voters, who could make up one-third of the vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas is the only candidate with a long history of making common cause politically with black leaders. His relationship with many of them is similar to that enjoyed by another Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, in 1976. So it's not surprising that he has the support of most big-name black political leaders here, including Rep. John Lewis, Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta.

But Mr. Clinton has been scarred by the incident in which he was filmed telling an aide, on the basis of an erroneous report, that Jesse Jackson's purported decision to support Sen. Tom Harkin was "a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do."

Mr. Clinton called Mr. Jackson to apologize and said, "It's fine between us."

But Mr. Jackson wasn't willing to let Mr. Clinton totally off the hook, referring to "some intemperate remarks" and noting that Mr. Clinton was the only Democratic candidate who had not taken him up on his offer of help. Since Mr. Jackson won the 1988 primary here with 40 percent of the vote, it was not the kind of exchange likely to nourish enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton among blacks.

The result could be a far smaller black vote than Mr. Clinton would like. Even his prime supporter here, Gov. Zell Miller, said he "wouldn't be surprised" if the turnout was low. The short duration of the campaign, Mr. Miller suggested, has not allowed time to evoke much interest in the minority community.

The black turnout is a concern for Mr. Clinton because of fears that he may suffer some defections from the other main pillar supporting his campaign -- culturally conservative white Democrats in small towns and rural areas who may cross over, as the law here allows, to vote for Patrick J. Buchanan in the Republican primary.

Polls here show Mr. Clinton with 35 percent to 40 percent, trailed by Paul Tsongas with 20 percent to 25 percent and the others in single digits. But the surveys show a large "undecided" among blacks who veteran Democrats say may simply go fishing Tuesday.

The lack of interest among blacks helped sink Michael Dukakis in such key states as Pennsylvania and Illinois four years ago.


The mild surprise in the South so far is that Mr. Tsongas seems be holding firmly to second place behind Mr. Clinton here despite Bob Kerrey's aggressive move against Mr. Clinton on the draft evasion issue.

But Mr. Kerrey is weak enough that his campaign managers in Georgia say he will spend no money on television or radio advertising before Tuesday and will not return to the state for the debate scheduled for Sunday to which only Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas have agreed.

If Mr. Kerrey doesn't show, the debate may be canceled. The other candidate originally expected, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, has adopted a de facto "strategic enclave" approach of concentrating on caucus states.


Although Pat Buchanan has focused on the South in the last week, the Bush-Quayle campaign, obviously worried about a wake-up call in Colorado from disgruntled Republican voters, is running a single television commercial here -- the ad featuring retired Marine Corps Commandant P. X. Kelley attacking Mr. Buchanan for having opposed Operation Desert Storm last year.

President Bush has not campaigned here for Tuesday's primary, sending Barbara Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle as his prime surrogates. It might have been expected that the campaign would run a commercial with Mr. Bush telling voters, as he did in New Hampshire, that he hadn't forgotten them. Instead, the Kelley ad seeks to tap into the considerable military and defense population in the state, which has already expressed unhappiness with another Desert Storm foe, Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth, up for re-election.

Kathy Arnold, the Colorado GOP executive director, says that an "anti-everything vote" always exists in this individualistic-minded state, but "anything below 30 percent [for Buchanan] is a victory" for Mr. Bush. Anything above that, without a real Buchanan campaign here, would certainly be another wake-up call.

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