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Democratic Hopefuls Find Peril, Promise in the South

November 22, 1987|KEITH LOVE | Times Political Writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The complex politics of the South--embracing racial history, conservatism and populism, prosperity and poverty--increasingly resemble a dangerous web for the 1988 Democratic presidential field.

Even as the six candidates compete for attention and votes in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, their strategies for Super Tuesday, March 8, are taking shape. On that day more than 30% of the Democratic convention delegates will be selected, most coming from 14 Southern states.

The consolidated Southern vote was created by Democratic officeholders there in hopes it would bolster moderate or conservative candidates, and thereby attract to the party similarly minded voters who have been deserting in droves to the Republicans during presidential elections.

But for the candidates it is a treacherous path. If they pitch too hard for disenchanted Southern Democrats, they risk not only alienating more liberal voters in other regions but also the primary voters who have turned out in the South in recent elections, many of whom are liberal or populist.

"In the South, the Democratic candidates have to combine enough progressive positions to turn out both blacks and blue-collar whites with enough conservative positions to keep from alienating middle-class whites," says University of North Carolina political science professor Merle Black.

"How you do that without appearing philosophically inconsistent is the million-dollar question."

Moreover, the five white Democratic candidates could find themselves fighting it out in a very small universe if, as many analysts predict, the Rev. Jesse Jackson gets most of the large black vote in the Southern primaries.

The white turnout in these primaries in the last two presidential elections has been very low--around 20%, according to Atlanta-based pollster Claibourne H. Darden Jr.

Active Party People

"The whites who voted in the 1984 Democratic primaries were strong Democrats--active party people, union members, teachers, feminists, with a smattering of young people attracted to Gary Hart," said Bert Lance, former chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party and former adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

Lance and others note that the people who did not vote in the 1984 Southern Democratic primaries in any numbers were the more conservative Democrats wooed by Ohio Sen. John Glenn and now being courted by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.

Lance sees pretty much the same scenario in 1988 with one new wrinkle: He thinks there could also be a surprisingly high turnout of another group of whites--"the forlorn and the forgotten, the people who have suffered under Reagan."

That would appear to bode well for the more populist white Democratic candidates, those who advocate government programs designed to lift disadvantaged people into the middle class. But Lance, who is an unofficial adviser to Jackson, argues that the white candidates will be surprised by how well Jackson competes with them for the economically depressed white Democrats.

The emerging strategies of the six Democratic contenders:

--Jackson: He is appealing to the angry and the economically dispossessed in a region where plants have closed or stopped expanding and small farmers have suffered even as such cities as Atlanta and Charlotte have boomed. He advocates tapping private pension plans for $2 trillion to finance housing, transit and jobs, and would make "repression of workers' rights" overseas grounds for some form of protection for competing domestic industry.

--Gore: In recent months he has made the South the key to his winning the nomination. Although his record shows him to be not much more conservative than the other candidates on defense issues, he has made a major appeal to patriotic Southerners by calling for a strong U.S. military posture and for, among other things, continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"Gore is going for those more conservative white Democrats who have pretty much stopped voting in our party's primaries," said Lance, who does not think the strategy will work any better for Gore than it did for Glenn in 1984.

New South Ethic

But Black, who recently published a book with his brother, Earl, on the modern South, "Politics and Society in the South," says he thinks there is a more moderate Democratic vote in the region for Gore--people in the cities and suburbs who will be drawn to his youth and to his upbringing in the New South ethic of racial harmony and modernization.

Gore has signed up a number of Democratic officials at the level of mayor and state representative, a strategy that former Democratic National Chairman Robert S. Strauss believes will help him get out his message and turn out his vote.

--Illinois Sen. Paul Simon: Of all the Democrats, he has the most populist message. He proudly recalls "the great Democratic tradition" of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and promises extensive federal aid for education, health care and employment.

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