Old-time religion, resistance to taxes, race, outside intrusion still count in Ala. James' themes trump opponent's money in surprisingly big win

July 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- As a battle for the soul of Southern Republicanism, the Alabama primary that Gov. Fob James Jr. won so convincingly Tuesday reinforced a number of truths about the party and the region.

Religious conservatives still wield immense influence. Strong stands against taxes still sell. Race still matters. And even as Southerners take a leading role in national politics, they still deeply resent federal intrusion.

The results also buttressed another theme drawn from campaigns around the country this year, including last month's spending spree among Democrats in the race for California governor: Money does not always prevail.

James was outspent by his opponent, Winton Blount III, a Montgomery businessman, by more than 2-to-1. By financing his campaign heavily with loans from himself and his family, Blount forced James to spend twice as much as the governor had originally budgeted for the primary. But James used TV ads to mock Blount's inherited wealth.

Each of those factors played a role in James' surprisingly decisive victory over Blount in their hard-fought primary runoff. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, James had 56 percent of the vote to Blount's 44 percent.

It was a campaign that probed the inherent tensions in Southern Republicanism, between the conservative Christians drawn to the party, and James, by a deeply felt moral agenda, and the business-oriented voters primarily concerned with the state's economic interests.

One of James' chief strategists was Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition. Throughout the region and beyond, the primary and the ensuing runoff became widely seen as a test of the power of the Christian right, less than two years before the presidential primary season begins.

In the week before James' victory, polls showed the race to be a dead heat. But the polls could not measure the enthusiasm of James' support among white conservatives in rural and suburban counties. Many of those voters were pulled to the polls by last-minute mailings and telephone calls that emphasized the governor's devotion to religious causes, like his protests against federal rulings prohibiting prayer in public schools and his defense of a judge's decision to display the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall.

"Anyone who didn't think before that religious conservatives were not a big part of the electorate here and the backbone of the Republican Party simply didn't understand Alabama," said Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Republican.

The polls also did not detect an apparent backlash against Blount's endorsement last week by Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. of Birmingham, a black Democrat who urged his supporters to cross over and vote in the GOP runoff.

James had pursued the mayor's endorsement himself. But when he did not receive it, his strategists and allies encouraged the backlash by arguing that Blount would be the captive of "a liberal Democratic political boss" who had demanded a say on appointments and spending priorities.

James played effectively to an almost visceral sentiment in Alabama's electorate -- a distaste for elites and outside authority. Several analysts said yesterday that his jabs at the federal judiciary and newspaper editorial writers appealed to his state's oft-wounded pride. In his speech Tuesday night, James spoke of "a spirit that says deep down I'm proud to be from Alabama."

Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist who has written extensively on the Republican politics in the South, said that James' ability to strike nativist chords was reminiscent of former Gov. George C. Wallace.

"It's the old Confederate thing of winning by losing," he said. "The important thing is making a stand against the odds."

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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