IN THE LAND OF COTTON, ANTIWAR VOTES ARE NOT FORGOTTEN
These are agonizing times to be a Democrat in Dixie. The Persian Gulf War, overwhelmingly opposed by the party on Capitol Hill, has wounded Southern Democratic officeholders. And party leaders' efforts to distract the nation from victory by pushing a liberal social agenda are widening the deep chasm between Southern moderates and the national Democratic Party. Says GOP strategist Haley Barbour: "It's getting really hard for Southern Democrats to hide just how far to the left their party is from the average Southern voter."
Dixie Dems have reason to dread 1992. A Times-Mirror Co. poll shows that for the first time, fully half of Southern voters favor GOP congressional candidates.
LOATHSOME DOVE. Since Southern whites began voting for GOP Presidential candidates in the mid-1960s, Republicans have been chasing the elusive goal of a Sunbelt realignment. Democrats fear that a Bush landslide in `92 could sweep out large numbers of officeholders, from county courthouse to the Senate. Perhaps the only thing standing between the Democrats and disaster is the GOP's traditional difficulty in recruiting first-rate candidates in the South.
Some of the region's most prominent Democrats are vulnerable. The narrow 1986 victories of Senators Wyche Fowler (Ga.), Terry Sanford (N. C.), and Richard Shelby (Ala.) were the key to the Democratic recapture of the Senate. But Fowler and Sanford, who voted against the use of force in the gulf, have seen their approval ratings plummet below 35%. Even South Carolina four-term Senator Ernest F. Hollings is hurting. An opponent of the war, he was booed at a rally for troops at Sumter, S. C.
Even such pro-war Democrats as Shelby are being hit by the fallout. National Republicans think his vote backing Bush won't be enough to protect Shelby from Southern disgust with the Democrats. "For 25 years, Democrats have been suspect on defense and foreign policy issues with Southerners," contends Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The Persian Gulf vote was the proof."
Some nervous Southern Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the party's liberal wing. Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia, the Democrats' chief Senate fund-raiser, angered party leaders by offering only a tepid defense of the party's antiwar policy. When liberals struck back by kicking Robb off the Senate Budget Committee, he took to wearing his punishment as a badge of honor.
Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer went a big step further by becoming a Republican. At first, Democrats dismissed the move as an act of political desperation: Polls show Roemer running behind both former Governor Edwin W. Edwards and onetime Klansman David Duke. Roemer hopes that Bush's coattails will pull him to reelection. But the governor stung Democrats with a parting shot, declaring that the GOP is "in prime position to open up a strong base of shared beliefs of family values, economic opportunity, and an unshakable commitment to national security and law and order."
With Republicans looking as if they'll soon overrun the Magnolia Line, some Southern Democrats dream that they can make working-class whites and blacks feel a common sense of economic hardship. Says Democratic National Committee member Natalie Davis of Alabama: "We need to appeal to the new service-economy worker, who operates the Xerox machine and shops at Wal-Mart. They think they are middle-class, but they are not." Republican strategists are confident that this dour message will just further alienate Southern whites--and finally propel Dixie firmly into the GOP column.EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM Douglas Harbrecht, with Paula Dwyer