ATLANTA — Facing up to the prospect that the South might again vote solidly Republican, top officials of Michael S. Dukakis' presidential campaign gathered secretly here Saturday to help fashion a fallback strategy that will focus resources on the five Southern states where a Democratic victory still seems possible.
The officials reviewed polls taken in selected states after last week's presidential debate and planned to narrow the Southern battleground significantly in an effort to forestall a feared Republican sweep, according to knowledgeable campaign aides.
The campaign now intends to focus a newly honed message at what aides call the "Big Five"--Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, the only Southern states where Dukakis appears to remain within striking distance. Officials directing the campaign's lagging efforts elsewhere in the South were not invited to Saturday's meeting.
Campaign officials have dismissed as ridiculous Republican claims that they are beginning a quick march out of the region. But their closely guarded meeting, chaired by political director Charles Campion, served as tacit acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation the campaign faces.
Nowhere in the South are the Democrats running any better than even. Without victories in the region, which holds 118 of the country's 538 electoral votes, Dukakis would probably have to counter with a solid sweep of the industrial Northeast and Midwest. And even in the Big Five, things have not been going Dukakis' way.
"We're really sucking wind down here," said one state director, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Throughout the region, the campaign has been put on the defensive by a Republican strategy that has sought to tag Dukakis as a liberal hostile to Southern values. "Labels don't matter," insists Larry Harrington, Dukakis' Southern political director. But interviews last week with campaign officials, analysts and voters in the states where the Democrats have staked their claim suggest that the Republican attacks are sticking.
"There are only four words we need to mention," boasts Tommy Hopper, who directs Vice President George Bush's campaign in Tennessee and claims to be running 11 points ahead. (The Democrats say four.) "ACLU. Gun control. Furloughs. Taxes. Down here, one of those four is bound to hit home."
Such wounding attacks put the Democrats in a familiar situation. No presidential candidate since Reconstruction has been elected without significant Southern support, and the Republican lock on the region has been broken in the past two decades only by Georgia's Jimmy Carter.
Dreams that the Democrats might dominate again this year died with Dukakis' nomination, but campaign officials continue to hope that, with Texan Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket, the party might score in a few states to relieve pressure elsewhere.
"Dukakis can win without the South," said Times political analyst William Schneider. "But there's no room for error."
If the Democrats can build a Southern cushion, it will almost certainly be in the Big Five. Registered Democrats in those states vastly outnumber Republicans. And generally, Democrats in the region say, the Democratic Party in the Big Five states has been less polarized by race than elsewhere in the region, and white Democrats have proved more favorably disposed to stick with the ticket in national elections.
Moreover, said analyst Schneider, a populist tradition in these states might make it possible for populist Democrats to outvote the conservative Democrats who remain suspicious of Dukakis.
The Dukakis campaign saw other advantages from the start in the five states, and targeted most of them for intensive campaigning.
Kentucky Best Bet
Kentucky, perhaps their best bet, faces high unemployment and boasts popular Democratic state officials. Arkansas, another good possibility, faces similar economic problems. North Carolina's economy has boomed, but unevenly, and Democrats hope that resentful have-nots will align with a substantial bloc of liberal Democrats.
The other two states present more difficult challenges. Tennessee's Republican Party is virtually moribund, but the state remains deeply conservative. Georgia is strongly Democratic, but racial tensions persist, and Dukakis has not returned there since the Atlanta convention in July.
But Dukakis' weakness in the region in the primaries--Florida and Texas were his only Southern victories on Super Tuesday--has come to haunt him.
In Kentucky and Tennessee, where Dukakis did hardly any organizing in March, newly arriving state directors were stunned last month to discover that they were barred by quirky state laws from spending funds raised by the Democratic National Committee. Admittedly worried, they have had to scramble to schedule in-state fund-raisers.