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Southern GOP Urged to Focus on Local Issues

March 01, 1986|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

NASHVILLE — Southern Republicans, gathered here for one of the largest party conferences in their history, were warned Friday by host Gov. Lamar Alexander that they need to spend less time talking about national issues and more time dealing with local problems.

In greeting about 1,400 local GOP activists from 13 Southern states, and in similar remarks later at a press conference, the Tennessee governor chided Republicans from this region for focusing on what he called "Washington issues"--foreign policy, the federal budget and welfare. This tendency, Alexander said, is keeping Republicans in Dixie from taking full advantage of the popularity of their national party in this region.

"Whenever Republicans get together, they always talk about Washington issues," said Alexander, who this year is finishing his second four-year term as governor. "As a result, they don't elect many people in state and local races."

Democrats 'Get Elected'

National issues are "tremendously important and so fascinating," Alexander said. "But when we get together that's all we talk about, and the Democratic governors are running down the street proposing programs to improve the schools, clean up the garbage, fix the roads and make the children more healthy--and they get elected."

Alexander's criticism at the start of the two-day leadership conference pointed up a frustrating contradiction for Southern Republicans. Even as the GOP's presidential candidates have had increasing success in the last 20 years with the breakup of the once solidly Democratic South, the party's local candidates have had a hard time holding their own against the Democrats.

Alexander is one of only two GOP governors in the region, the other being James G. Martin of North Carolina. Moreover, all the state legislatures are firmly in Democratic hands.

"We still have miserable numbers in the state legislature," Alexander said. He added that in some areas the Republicans have less strength now than they did 15 years ago, when President Richard M. Nixon's so-called "Southern strategy," an attempt to win the South over to the GOP, was in full flower.

'Catching Up' Urged

"We have got some catching up to do" in finding ways to use government to deal with local problems, Alexander said. Although he acknowledged that "that may not sound like Republican philosophy," he said such a shift is necessary if local Republicans are to make gains in the South commensurate with the advances made by their national candidates.

Despite Alexander's admonition, those attending the conference spent a significant amount of time talking about national concerns. A panel Friday discussed arms control, with the participants including former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

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