WASHINGTON. — Washington -- During my boyhood in the South I often heard what was supposed to be a truism: ''To keep a man down in the ditch you've got to get in there with him and hold him.''
That was a message aimed at poor and middle-class whites, whose economic and other fears of black people were so deep that white politicians and plantation owners could always set race against race. Senators such as Theodore Bilbo and James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia played the divide-and-rule game for generations.
Then along came Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush to appeal to racial fears and hostilities in ways that enabled the Republican Party to win over the South.
One of the remarkable things about Super Tuesday voting is that Gov. Bill Clinton is finally convincing poor whites and blacks that they have a common destiny. He seemed to convince the poor people of Florida, where some half a million people are jobless, that they cannot afford to fight each other while more privileged people walk off with educational and job opportunities.
Not only did Mr. Clinton get a heavy share of the votes of poor and middle-class whites; he got three of every four ballots cast by blacks.
It is noteworthy that about 25 percent more Floridians voted in the Democratic primary than took part in the Republican primary.
In Texas, President Bush's adopted ''home state,'' Mr. Clinton got almost double the number of votes that Mr. Bush got, even though the governor had formidable opponents in Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown, with the president having only Pat Buchanan as a meaningful opponent.
The pattern of Democrats turning out in far greater numbers than Republicans prevailed in Louisiana, Oklahoma,Tennessee, Mississippi . . . well, everywhere. If this is a harbinger of what will happen in the November general election, President Bush is indeed in deep trouble.
To win the presidency, Governor Clinton would have to start out with a base of electoral votes from the South, especially from Texas and Florida. If he can sell the message -- of the tragic costs of racial warfare, and the rewards of racial cooperation -- in the South, perhaps he can also sell it in Michigan, New York, Illinois, California, and other states where it is desperately needed. The ''race card'' has been played more destructively in these huge, industrial, highly urban states than in the South.
Mr. Clinton doesn't have the nomination yet, but he seems well on his way to winning it, barring some new revelations and charges that cast more doubt on his character. As of this date we can applaud him for having enough character not to play the politics of racial divisiveness, and enough persuasiveness to make voters accept principles of togetherness.
8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.