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CAMPAIGN 2000

The South: Crucial for Bush but Straying

Campaign: Republicans have counted on the region's votes, but Gore is making important inroads.

September 21, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

MACON, Ga. — George W. Bush won't win the White House in the South. But he could lose it here.

Democratic for decades, then reliably Republican for a generation, the South today is no lock for either presidential candidate.

Mark Haizlip is one reason. Phillip Patterson is another.

Haizlip's decision to support Bush is simple: "He's not a Democrat." Like many Southerners, the 55-year-old Macon construction executive sees the Democrats as the party of big government and loose morals.

But not Patterson. He thanks the Democrats for all the dressers and dinette sets flying out the door of Rhodes furniture store in Jonesboro, 50 miles up the interstate. "I want to keep the status quo," said the 47-year-old salesman, a Gore supporter.

Lately, the views Haizlip and Patterson represent have come to matter a good deal as the presidential candidates try to plot their paths to the White House. Bush always counted on a strong base in the Mountain West and the South to launch his attack on the big industrial states. But now, with Pennsylvania, Michigan and other targets leaning Gore's way, the South has become even more crucial for the GOP nominee.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Southern vote--A Sept. 21 graphic on how Southern states voted in the last two presidential elections incorrectly reported some results for Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. In 1992, Georgia supported Bill Clinton while Mississippi backed George Bush. Tennessee supported Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Electoral Votes Not Lining Up

A sweep of the old Confederacy and Kentucky would give the Texas governor well over half the Electoral College votes he needs to win. Today, however, only four of those dozen states appear solid for Bush; one is Texas.

Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana are up for grabs along with the biggest prize, Florida, which is an unexpected tossup. Georgia has recently grown more competitive, and Gore has also shown surprising strength in the GOP strongholds of Virginia and the Carolinas.

All of which suggests there is no majority party anymore in Southern presidential politics. "What you have are two competitive minority parties" that rise and fall "depending on what are the hot issues of the moment," said Merle Black of Atlanta's Emory University.

The Republican camp is confident the South will go Bush's way. "The question is why Gore isn't doing better," scoffed campaign spokesman Tucker Eskew. "He's from Tennessee."

But the political calculation is different for the vice president. With a big Electoral College base in New York, California and the Northeast, "Democrats don't have to have a solid South to win the White House," party pollster Mark Mellman pointed out. "We just need to be able to make some places competitive. And it's quite clear we're doing that."

Once the South was the country's Democratic bastion. The civil rights movement changed that, however, as Republicans exploited black-white tensions and rallied voters under the banner of resistance. At the same time, conservatives recoiled from Democrats' dovish defense policies and more permissive stand on social issues.

The turnabout was astonishing. In four straight elections from 1980 to 1992, Democrats won only a single Southern state, Georgia, back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

But with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton topping the ticket, Democrats won four Southern states in 1992 and again in 1996. "Bill Clinton learned the lesson that Democrats of the 1980s chose to ignore," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. "If you're going to be competitive in the South . . . you cannot let Republicans brand 'liberal' on you and have it stick."

Clinton styled himself "a different kind of Democrat," backing capital punishment and welfare reform as part of a personal-responsibility platform that lessened the party's indulgent image. It also helped that issues such as anti-communism and a muscular foreign policy, which long boosted Republicans, were no longer as resonant at the end of the Cold War.

Racial issues also lost some of their edge, as migration made the South less socially and economically isolated from the rest of the country. It is no accident, many political analysts believe, that segregationists raised the Confederate flag over the South Carolina Statehouse in 1962 and economic interests forced it down in 2000.

Still, the South remains by far the most conservative part of the country, and the embrace of Clinton was never overwhelming. In 1996, four states outside the region gave the president a higher percentage vote than his native Arkansas.

That said, Clinton enjoyed advantages Gore lacks. The president was hugely popular among African American voters, who have yet to show the same enthusiasm for Gore. The vice president's support for tough environmental regulation and a crackdown on the tobacco industry hurts in Kentucky and Louisiana. Gore's backing of gun control and bigger government also puts off many white males.

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