The South stands by her men

March 12, 1992

One commentator has compared Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's popularity in the South, even with Bible-thumping, family-value social conservatives, to one of those country and western "somebody-done-somebody-wrong" songs with a happy ending. In this case, Bill and Hillary reunited and living happily ever after. She forgave him, so why shouldn't the voters?

There is no mistaking that Southern Democrats are standing by Governor Clinton. Last week, Georgia Democrats handed him a 59-23 percent victory over Paul Tsongas. This week, the Clinton-Tsongas showings were even more gratifying for the Arkansan: 68-19 in Tennessee, 66-18 in Texas, 69-11 in Louisiana and 74-7 in Mississippi. Only in Florida, whose population is getting more and more like the Middle West and Northeast as "transplants" pour in to work or retire, did Mr. Tsongas do better. And even there he got only 34 percent of the vote to Governor Clinton's 51 percent.

These have to be very troubling numbers for those supporting Mr. Tsongas' candidacy. Almost everyone agrees that without a decent showing in the South in November, the Democratic ticket will have little chance. Mr. Tsongas is being rejected by Southern voters to such a degree that he makes Michael Dukakis look good. Mr. Dukakis at least could raise money and speak Spanish. He got over a million votes in the 1988 primaries in Florida and Texas -- and still lost every state in the region in November. Mr. Tsongas got only 670,000.

The Democratic Party -- not just Mr. Tsongas -- has to be concerned about the votes on Super Tuesday. Turnout was down 12 percent from 1988 in Florida and 16 percent in Texas -- and by a third or more in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and (on March 3) Georgia. Much of the Democratic turnout falloff is due to black indifference to the candidates, especially Paul Tsongas, who seems to have little appeal to black voters.

But it is not just black indifference that accounts for the anti-Democratic trend. Increasing numbers of white Southerners regard themselves as Republicans. In Georgia and South Carolina this year, as many or more voters participated in the Republican primaries as in the Democratic.

All of this is good news for another man of the South. George Herbert Walker Bush of Houston ran stronger in the almost all-white Southern Republican primaries this year than four years ago -- this despite a smaller turnout there and despite having signed a "quota bill" in the interim, as Pat Buchanan and David Duke kept reminding voters. The South stood by her man, the president. He not only got more votes this year than he got four years ago; he got more than twice as many votes as Messrs. Buchanan and Duke combined, and he won 306 of the 316 Southern delegates at stake.

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