Southern politics: Can GOP stay on top of a Democratic mountain?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

How deep has the near-total Reagan sweep of the South -- and the election of four new Republican senators and a governor -- cut into the traditional Democratic dominance of the region?

Southern political scientists and others interviewed by the Monitor, while agreeing that the size of the Reagan margin was a surprise, disagree on what lies ahead in Southern politics.

Some see the Republicans winning more congressional seats and governorships in the coming years, having captured the new conservative "mood" of the South (and of much of the nation). They call the 1980 election a "watershed" that marks the beginning of a truly two-party system in the region.

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The new "mood" that some Southern analysts speak of is even more conservative than before. Most Southern Democrats are, on most issues, already fairly conservative. What this election saw, in many cases, was the defeat of conservative Southerners by even more conservative Southerners.

But the Republican victories in the South were, in most cases, narrow wins, and other observers see a likely, Democratic resurgence, perhaps as early as 1982. They look at some of the Republican state-level victories this time around and argue that they were due, at least partially, to correctable campaign mistakes by the Democrats. The 1980 elections was more a "freak" occurrence, they contend.

Still other political experts say we won't know the impact of the Reagan sweep on the South until the Reagan presidential record is known.

"If [the Republican] blow it as badly as Carter blew it, they may be out of office in four years," says Robert Huckshorn, political science professor at Florida Atlantic University and an expert on political parties.

But, he adds, if the Reagan administration makes a major cuts in the inflation rate and size of government, the Republican success of 1980 could become more permanent.

If Reagan fails, some political analysts see a majority of Southern voters turning again to a Democratic presidential candidate. But Walter DeVries, co-author of "The Transformation of Southern Politics," sees Southern voters taking "an even more conservative stance if Reagan doesn't perform."

The once solid Democratic South has not been solid for a long time and is even less so today, notes Mr. DeVries. Democrats are going to have to start looking more Republican to succeed at the polls, he says.

Yet, says Atlanta pollster Claibourne H. Darden Jr., most Southern Democrats are already to the right of center on most issues.

Southern blacks "can't permit white Democrats to go as far to the right as they'd like to," says defeated congressional candidate Leslie McLemore, a black in Jackson, Miss. But since Democrats need black votes now more than ever, he sees a closer cooperation ahead between black and white Democrats in the South.

"Race is still the most central issue in Southern politics," says Carter supporter Samuel Dubois Cook, president of Dillard University. He sees the Republican sweep, in part, as a reaction to President Carter's in part, as a reaction to President Carter's numerous appointments of blacks, including to Southern judgeships.

The election was not a "watershed" but the continuation of steady Republican gains in the South, says David Paletz, University of North Carolina political science professor. Republicans have usually been losing congressional and gubernatorial races, but by smaller and smaller margins, he notes.

Although President-elect Reagan carried every Southern state except Georgia, his winning margin was less than 1 percent in Arkansas and Tennessee and only 2 percent in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Republicans narrowly took Democratic US Senate seats in North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.

In Arkansas, Democratic incumbent Gov. Bill Clinton narrowly lost to Republiccan Frank D. White, who ran slightly ahead of reagan.

But tactical mistakes, not any major ideological failing, hurt Mr. Clinton and US Sen. Robert Morgan (D) of North Carolina, suggest political experts in their states.

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