Clinton is threatening GOP's grip on the South

September 27, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

VALDOSTA, Ga. -- Whizzing past the cotton fields of Georgia, Bill Clinton's bus caravan scatters seeds of a profound political change.

Barely five weeks before Election Day, the Democrat is leading President Bush or running even in most Southern states, polls show.

If those trends hold, historians may look back at this year as a watershed: the demise of the solid Republican South in presidential elections and the start of a new, highly competitive era in which this key part of the country is up for grabs.

Much more than regional bragging rights is at stake. The balance of national political power could conceivably be affected well into the next century.

The phenomenal winning streak that has kept the White House in Republican hands for all but four of the past 24 years was built on a foundation of unswerving Southern support.

Since 1972, Republicans have carried all 12 states, from Virginia to Texas, in every election except 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a Southerner, won most of them, and in 1980, when Mr. Carter took his own state of Georgia.

But this year, Mr. Clinton is heavily favored to win Arkansas, his See home state, and Tennessee, home of running mate Al Gore. He stands a surprisingly good chance of winning Georgia and Louisiana, which have not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate, other than Mr. Carter, since 1960.

Ahead in the polls

He also leads in North Carolina and Kentucky and, at least for now, is in a virtual dead heat in Texas, the president's adopted home state, and in Florida, another must-win state for Mr. Bush.

In the region as a whole, Mr. Clinton leads Mr. Bush by 50 percent to 42 percent, which nearly matches his 12-point lead nationwide, according to the latest Gallup Poll.

"We're competitive all across the South," Mr. Clinton declared last week in Columbus, Ga. "And we intend to press them."

If Mr. Clinton breaks the Republican lock on the South, he would all but guarantee himself the presidency, because his lead in key states elsewhere is as big or bigger.

Even if Mr. Bush winds up winning back much of the South, the Democrats have already scored a tactical victory by forcing him to divert time and money from the potentially decisive states of the Midwest to defend his Southern base.

Just last week, Mr. Bush was campaigning in Mississippi, which he won by more than 20 points in 1988, and this week is expected to return to Florida, which should have been locked up for him by now.

The Bush campaign has also had to pour money into television advertising in Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina -- all states where Mr. Bush's margin of victory four years ago outpaced his victory margin nationwide.

Clinton's strategy

The tight race down South stems in part from the Democratic ticket's Southern roots and a long-running effort, in which Mr. Clinton has played a central part, to make the national Democratic Party more acceptable to Southern whites.

Since winning the nomination, he has also managed to mute elements of his party's coalition, such as organized labor, which are anathema to the Southern conservatives who have defected to the Republicans during the past three decades.

"You have to give Clinton credit. He shut Jesse Jackson up," says Tommy Thomas, a Pensacola, Fla., car dealer and former chairman of the state Republican Party. "These white folks down here haven't figured out that the blacks will have a big say-so if Clinton's elected."

But the fight in the South is even more a function of Mr. Bush's political failures, which have cast serious doubt on the Republican Party's long-standing goal of becoming the majority party in the region.

Recent polls in several Southern states show that white voters under the age of 45 have been drifting away from the Republicans, and that Democrats have achieved parity among the newest members of the electorate, those ages 18 to 24.

Bush's tactical errors

"George Bush has basically frittered away a great deal of the advantage that the Republicans had," said Earl Black, co-author of "The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected" and a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.

"He didn't take actions during his term that would have provided a real payoff for the Republican base," which is almost exclusively white and generally conservative.

Many Southern backers of Ronald Reagan who supported Mr. Bush in 1988 are still furious that the president broke his no-tax-increase pledge and signed into law a civil rights measure he previously denounced as a quota bill.

Meantime, the harsh rhetoric of last month's Republican convention, aimed at luring those conservatives back, seems to have turned off another key element of the 1988 Bush coalition -- moderate suburbanites who lack strong ties to either party, a group widely seen as the swing vote in this year's election, both in the South and elsewhere.

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