Clinton's advances in Dixie offer key for opening up 'lock' on Electoral College IN THE SOUTH

October 25, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When President Bush decided to fly int Alabama and Louisiana this weekend, the dirty little secret was out: The Republicans are in real and immediate danger of losing the fabled "Electoral College lock" they have enjoyed in winning five of the past six presidential elections.

Without the South overwhelmingly Republican, there is no lock at all. And with the election nine days away, the evidence is accumulating that Democrat Bill Clinton may win as many as seven or possibly eight of the 13 states in the region that will cast 163 electoral votes Nov. 3.

The dimensions of the Republican problem are defined by political history. Four years ago, Mr. Bush won all 13 states with from 55.5 percent of the vote in Kentucky to 61.5 percent in South Carolina.

In seven states in the region, Mr. Bush had more than 59 percent, landslide proportions.

By contrast, today the most recent polls show Mr. Clinton leading in his home state of Arkansas, Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, and Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Mr. Bush is believed to be leading in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia.

Several of these states are still very much in play, nonetheless, and Alabama is a case in point. The most recent published poll here shows Mr. Clinton leading by 10 points, but private polling for the Democrats puts the lead at only 3 because it uses a harsher screen in identifying most likely voters.

The message, nonetheless, is that Mr. Clinton is at least clearly competitive in several states -- Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina as well as Alabama -- that Democrats have written off as hopeless cases in the past three presidential elections.

To some extent, the change is the result of the same factors that have given the Democrat such a wide lead in national polls.

In Florida, for example, the dreary economic situation -- unemployment above 9 percent -- has changed the dynamics.

But in most of the South, the difference is based on racial politics. The problem for such Democrats as Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 was that their identification as liberals made it impossible to win even the 35 percent of the white vote they needed in states in which blacks may cast 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote.

On the contrary, Mr. Mondale and Mr. Dukakis each captured only about 30 percent of the white vote in several Deep South states.

In fact, they have run closest in the Southern states with the smallest black populations -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas -- in which they were not seen as captives of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the black political leadership.

Mr. Clinton, the self-described "different kind of Democrat," has managed to reach out to conservative white voters without sacrificing his black support.

His deliberate decision to put distance between himself and Mr. Jackson still resonates among white political leaders here.

The same is true of his early campaign emphasis -- now underlined in campaign commercials -- on welfare policies that require "responsibility" on the part of the recipients, a position that has helped define the "different kind."

So the operative question now is whether black turnout is large enough to give him majorities in these states.

Here in Alabama, for example, poll-taker Natalie Davis shows Mr. Clinton with a 3-point lead among the most likely voters. In that category, under Ms. Davis' standards, only about 18 percent of the total vote would be cast by blacks.

If that share becomes 20 percent or 21 percent, well within the realm of possibility, Mr. Clinton has enough white support -- 35 percent to 40 percent -- to carry the state.

Joe Reed, head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the leading black political organization in the state, says he is uncertain about the likely black turnout but is convinced it would rise to winning levels if Mr. Clinton makes even one late-campaign stop in the state. "That's all we need," he said. "He just needs to come in once."

The Democrats did send Mr. Gore into the state this week, and Mr. Clinton made a recent bus tour of Louisiana, where the situation is almost exactly the same.

Mr. Clinton's tentative success in the South clearly has come as a surprise to both campaigns.

The Alabama campaign has been funded largely by almost $500,000 raised in the state. Clinton-Gore headquarters has spent less than $30,000 here, the national Democratic Party less than $100,000.

Al LaPierre, the Alabama party's executive director, had the experience four years ago of sending money to the Dukakis campaign headquarters, then getting far less back in return for local efforts.

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