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South vote: candidates, study your history

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 1984

Montgomery, Ala.

For all the attention they are receiving, the upcomming Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary will select a total of only 80 of the nearly 4,000 delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention.

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But about 600 delegates will be chosen on Super Tuesday, March 13, nearly half of them in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

March 13 is likely to be a day of winnowing. Those who have not made a good showing either up North or down South will have to face the question: If not yet , then when? So the Southern primaries are crucial.

That means the Southern voters are crucial. But who are they? And what kind of attitudes and concerns are they likely to bring into the voting booths next month? How has the South's history shaped their thinking?

Interviews here as well as in a poor, rural Alabama county and in the state's largest city, Birmingham, indicate that as presidential candidates dash in and out of this state, they would do well to bring along a history book and an eraser - for erasing some, but not all, stereotypes of this Deep South state.

For example:

* At the top of a flight of marble steps leading up to the State Capitol here stands a tall statue of Jefferson Davis. Although Mississippi was his home, it was here in 1861 that he was elected president of the provisional government of the new Confederate States of America. But while women in the southern part of the state were busy stitching silken Confederate flags, many of the young men from Alabama's northern hill country, where there were few slaves, were refusing to fight and instead sought neutrality.

And Alabamians who used to search for their family roots among the wealthy plantation owners of Virginia more often found them among poor families with dirt yards in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, or North Carolina.

That historical snapshot helps explain the populist-to-liberal streak that winds in and out of the continuing deep conservatism in Alabama.

* One block down the street from the Capitol is a small red-brick church. In 1955, the church's young black pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize a boycott of local buses to protest the blacks-to-the-rear rules of the bus service.

Joe Reed, an influential black lobbyist and political activist, has his office on the same block as the church. He has decided not to endorse black Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson but did support (although not in the primary) the successful reelection in 1982 of George C. Wallace, the one-time segregation leader.

* Only about 20 percent of the voters in Alabama identify themselves in polls as Republicans. But Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and, by some 17,000 votes, Ronald Reagan have all carried the state.

Alabama has one Democratic US senator (Howell T. Heflin) and one Republican (Jeremiah Denton). Two of the state's seven congressmen are Republicans. And there is a small but apparently growing number of Republicans in the Legislature.

Larry Dixon, a state senator from Montgomery, is one. He switched last year from the Democratic Party at a time of statewide redistricting, aware that he had lost the support of key Democratic voter groups. But he won easily as a Republican and now says he should have switched years ago.