Southern GOP clout may fade in the light of cold political reality


BILOXI, Miss. -- The 1,600 Southern Republicans who gathered here over the weekend kept reminding everyone of how much political clout they enjoy.

The figures are impressive. In the 13 states represented at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Republicans hold nine governorships, 18 of the 26 Senate seats and 82 members of the House of Representatives.

The common element in this group of political activists is a devotion to cultural and social conservatism. Although the Christian Coalition presence at the conference was limited, perhaps because it was held in a hotel that offers gambling, the response to the rhetoric made it clear these are Republicans who feel strongly about such issues as abortion rights and school vouchers.

What was clearly missing, however, was anything approaching a consensus among these Republicans on a presidential candidate who shares their priorities. In a straw poll, three of their favorites -- former Vice President Dan Quayle, magazine publisher Steve Forbes and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri -- finished among the five leaders and took more than one-third of the 1,106 ballots cast.

Family values approach

This was no surprise to anyone who listened to the speeches at this conference. Mr. Quayle, Mr. Forbes and Mr. Ashcroft took a hard line on social issues and were rewarded with enthusiastic applause. By contrast, the potential candidates whose commitment the conservatives question -- former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp -- finished well down the line.

But having three acceptable candidates is not an answer for these sons and daughters of the South. The winner of the straw vote with 18 percent was a politician, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who didn't attend the meeting and is not counted as a devout advocate of putting the "family values" issues at the top of his agenda.

On paper, Mr. Quayle would appear to be the leader among those candidates beaming their message at the South. But questions remain about whether he can shed the image he acquired as an intellectual lightweight given to gaffes. He was given a boisterous reception when he used his time at the podium to restate his commitment to family values with an attack on President Clinton, "union bosses" and "environmental extremists."

Mr. Forbes, who ran for the 1996 nomination as an advocate of a radical flat-tax plan, demonstrated again how he has broadened his message to reach out to the religious right. Rather than focusing on the perfidy of the Internal Revenue Service, he talked about what he sees as "a new era of spiritual renewal" in the offing. It was an approach that earned him a warm response but many people question whether he can be elected.

The flavor of the month for Southern conservatives seems to be still a third candidate, Mr. Ashcroft, who has impressed conservative activists with his unwavering commitment on social issues. Also, they like his willingness to take the lead in attacking Mr. Clinton on the morality question.

But Mr. Ashcroft is still largely an unknown quantity as a national figure. "I like Ashcroft a lot," a delegate from Arkansas said, "but I don't know how he can win the nomination just like that."

An unknown Bush

Lacking a strong single candidate, many of these Southern conservatives seem resigned to Mr. Bush, although they know relatively little about him other than that he seems to be enjoying a lot of success in Texas. Asked in the straw poll who they expected to win, almost one-third of respondents said Mr. Bush. "I like Forbes," said a woman from northern Mississippi, "but they're going to give us Bush just like they gave us Bob Dole."

As a practical matter, the problem for the Southern GOP is that its voice may not be heard loudly in the decision on the 2000 nominee. Although the 13 states will have more than one-third of the delegates at the Republican convention, the choice probably will depend on how well the candidates fare in the Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary, where there is less of a premium on the "family values agenda."

The Southern clout is real up to a point. It was obvious here in the issues chosen for emphasis by, for example, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, one of those likely to be on everyone's list of potential vice presidential nominees. It will be obvious in writing another party platform. But clout and control are two different things.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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