CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Michael Grissom, a mattress maker who plans to vote Republican in the Super Tuesday primary in March, has a slew of concerns: education, the economy, national defense and the homeless, for starters.
"What I want," he said during a cigarette break, "is somebody who will keep his promises once he makes them."
Such is the challenge facing the six Republican presidential candidates seeking to tap the huge cache of delegates in 12 Southern states holding primaries on March 8. By the end of that day, 50% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been selected, and the man in the lead will almost certainly be the one who connected with voters in the South.
So far none of them have, or at least so it appears after conversations with dozens of voters like Grissom and with politicians and political observers in the region.
"They're all saying the same thing, practically," said Jack Stack, a millionaire businessman and political kingmaker in Meridian, Miss. "I know the Lord is not a capricious person, but so far he hasn't revealed where he wants me to go."
In early presidential preference polls, Vice President George Bush had a wide lead. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey published in October showed Bush leading Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, 46% to 19%. None of the other four candidates--former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former television evangelist Pat Robertson--scored more than 10%.
But Bush's competitors contend those numbers reflect name recognition and a residual affection for the Administration of Ronald Reagan, who locked up the hearts of Southerners with his unwaveringly conservative social policies and huge defense buildup.
Once voters start to focus on the issues and on the question of who can best lead the nation, Bush can be beaten in the South, these strategists contend.
"Does he have whatever it takes to be President? Those evaluations matter a great deal," said Harold Stanley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, Bush's rivals hope to show Southern voters that the vice president is far from invincible, perhaps with a defeat in the Iowa caucuses, where Dole now leads in polls, and also in Michigan, where a Kemp-Robertson coalition appears to have the upper hand.
In addition, Bush may be vulnerable in a number of small states where delegate selection occurs before March 8, including Hawaii and South Dakota.
Scenario for Bush
Such a scenario would have Bush making a last stand in the South amid growing doubts about his leadership and his ability to win a general election.
On the other hand, should Bush win those early contests, the South could provide the coup de grace to his competition for the nomination.
"Bush is strong where Reagan is strong," said William Schneider, a Washington political consultant and Los Angeles Times political analyst. "He's stronger among Southern Republicans than among Republicans elsewhere. He's riding on Reagan's coattails."
Bush is also dominant in his own right in Texas, the largest Super Tuesday state. He lived and worked there for years and was elected to Congress from Houston.
Impression of Bush
What he must overcome in the minds of some voters, however, is the impression that he has not been his own man within the Administration--the dreaded "wimp" factor.
Bill Crawford, a Meridian banker, said: "Bush has the experience in government, but I'll be dad-gummed if I've seen him exhibit leadership in the last four years, and leadership is the key for me."
Between bites of chicken livers during a soul food meal, Crawford said: "I can't imagine us having someone as President who is depicted the way he is on things like the Johnny Carson show."
Crawford supports Dole, he said, because he "has a better leadership record" stemming from his Senate work and "comes across as a stronger leader."
Dole, sensing that the leadership question may prove his best weapon against Bush, frequently invokes his experience as Senate Republican leader, as well as offering gibes about Bush's eight years as vice president.
Beefing Up Appeal
To beef up his appeal to Southerners, Dole has sent his popular wife, former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a native North Carolinian, on several campaign swings in the region. He has also revved up a populist pitch, saying that economic hardship he experienced as a boy in Depression-era Kansas and his terrible war wound have given him compassion for the downtrodden.
Schneider said this strategy will win Dole some votes from Democrats, who can cross over to vote in GOP primaries in seven Southern states. But compassion "is a Democratic issue that won't help him with Republicans," he said.