Key West, Fla. — Florida and the South gave their support to Ronald Reagan and not to their fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. That was more than a year ago. The judgment of political observers in this region is that Reagan remains politically formidable - and perhaps unbeatable. But they point out that cracks in the President's popularity are making their appearance here for the first time.
Southern conservatives found Reagan very much to their liking. But they are beginning to believe that the President is softening his hard line in foreign affairs. And they are starting to raise questions about whether Mr. Reagan really has his heart in conservative domestic programs other than economics.
They find his recent pronouncements on Western Europe and his expressed desire to sit down and work out nuclear arms reductions with the Soviets as too conciliatory. They see him warming up too much to mainland China at the expense of Taiwan. And they are less than pleased with his careful calibration of reprisals against the Soviets in the Polish crisis. They would like to see him talk and act tougher.
Made up mostly of registered Democrats who deserted their party in droves to vote for Reagan, Southern conservatives remain in the President's camp. But they are becoming restless.
GOP politicians still express solid support for the President. A recent gathering of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Orlando, Fla., went out of its way to show that it was sticking with him. It was the consensus of the 1,200 delegates that Reaganomics would still work, given a little more time.
However, there are danger signs for the President in this region - with growing indications that his broad support could deteriorate beyond the current faint cracks and actually crumble. Indeed, rank-and-file Reagan loyalists are beginning to question whether the Californian has a firm hand on the tiller. They see a confusion of signals from him.
Why, they ask, would he in effect restore tax exemptions for private schools and colleges which the IRS had found guilty of discrimination and then, almost within hours and in response to a protest from liberals, change his position? Where, they ask, does the President really stand on this issue?
Many Southern conservatives also express discontent over Mr. Reagan's failure to carry out his pledge to push anti-abortion legislation and to try to bring back prayer in the schools. They also fault him for not taking a harder line against renewal of the Voting Rights Act in its present form.
Also, one finds a strong antipathy here to David Stockman. Why didn't Mr. Reagan fire him? conservatives ask. Why keep a man who has shown he is disloyal - and who clearly doesn't believe in the President's economic program?
Southerners -- conservatives and moderates and liberals alike -- express anxiety, too, over what the President really means to do about social security. They are aware of his campaign pledge not to tamper with the program. But then came his plan to do just that and his retreat only after the widespread protest this evoked.
Now Mr. Reagan indicates he will leave social security alone. But the anxiety at the grass roots lingers -- fed by the feeling that he could shift positions again.
The President's performance at his last press conference did little to build public confidence in him in this area. Many viewers found him a little less poised than usual, less skillful in fielding questions. Many faulted him, too, for citing incorrect statistics in asserting that current rising unemployment is a trend that began in the last months of the Carter administration. The perception here is that this is a Reagan recession.
In the South the bite of the current economic downswing is not so deep as it is in most other regions. But Reagan's advice to the jobless - look in the want ads - has drawn widespread criticism. Even some Reagan loyalists feel this counsel was a little heartless since the President wasn't suggesting any quick way the unemployed could gain the training they needed to avail themselves of want-ad opportunities.
The President still looks good to most Southerners. But he can no longer safely assume that this region is Reagan country.