Atlanta — The South is definitely Reagan country this year. The question is, will the Reagan coattails help Republicans running for the US Senate and House and for the governorships?
Republican presidential candidates have carried the South in three of the last six elections, and the party has gained ground in state elections as well. Several Southern congressmen running for reelection have switched this time from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Southerners are notorious ticket-splitters, so political analysts in most of these states don't expect the Reagan tide to drown many incumbent Democrats running for reelection. Yet Alabama historian Bill Barnard says he senses that ''something funny'' could happen in the South: a Reagan sweep, boosted by many white Southern Democrats who not only might abandon their party for the choice of president, but for state offices as well. ALABAMA
It's tough to beat a US senator who has strong support from both parties. That's why incumbent Howell Heflin (D), a former judge, is seen as an easy winner over former US Rep. Albert Lee Smith Jr.
In the Birmingham area, Republicans hope to win back a House seat they lost in 1982 to Democrat Ben Erdreich, who has strong support from blacks. Mr. Erdreich is favored over his very conservative opponent, J. T. Waggoner (R), a former Democrat.
In Mobile, a close race has developed to fill the seat of retiring US Rep. Jack Edwards (R). Trucking company executive H. L. Callahan, a Republican who used to be a Democrat, faces moderate Democratic lawyer Frank McRight. Mr. McRight is more liberal than his opponent on racial issues, while conservative on defense issues. He is not widely known, says Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham Southern University. ARKANSAS
Incumbent US Sen. David Pryor (D) is favored over Republican US Rep. Ed Bethune, who is not that well known outside his Little Rock district. Mr. Bethune is trying to pin the liberal label on Senator Pryor, but Pryor was a conservative governor. In some of his votes against Ronald Reagan's policies, Pryor took a more conservative position than the President, notes political writer Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Gazette.
Popular young Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton appears to be safely ahead in his bid for another term against his Republican opponent, little-known contractor Elwood Freeman Jr.
In the race for Bethune's House seat, rough-talking Democratic Sheriff Tommy Robinson has a ''macho'' image that is greatly admired in the rural counties, says Mr. Dumas. And even though he has turned off many Democrats, says veteran state Sen. Ben Allen (D), Sheriff Robinson is favored over Republican state Rep. Judy Petty and former newspaperman Jim Taylor, who is running as an independent. FLORIDA
With President Reagan well ahead in the state, Republicans hope to expand the number of US House seats they hold in Florida. There is no gubernatorial or US senatorial election in the state this year.
The state GOP, which already has six of the state's 19 congressional seats, is focusing this November on four races in which party leaders think they have the best chance of unseating incumbent Democrats.
The Republicans also are throwing substantial support behind US Rep. Andrew Ireland in the 10th District. He recently switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Mr. Ireland said he switched because he felt more comfortable with Republican policies and with the Reagan administration.
Although Florida has had but one Republican governor since Reconstruction, it is increasingly voting Republican in presidential and congressional elections. And it has a Republican US senator, Paula Hawkins.
Democrats still outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, but from Feb. 1 to August 1 this year, as many new voters registered Republican as Democrat.
''The Republican registration in many counties of the state is increasing, and that is going to show up in this election,'' says Dr. Anne Kelley, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. ''The Republicans are organizing and staffing elections in areas which they have not in the past.''
The Republican Party is growing fastest along the state's lower east coast from Dade to Martin counties and along the west coast from Charlotte County to Pinellas, she says. It also is growing in Orange County around Orlando.
''The people moving into the state are bringing their Republicanism with them ,'' Dr. Kelley says. ''And the youth seem to be leaning toward voting for Reagan. I have no figures to back this up, but I have a gut feeling that young people are not identifying with Mondale and Ferraro.
The huge influx of Cubans into the state, especially in the Miami area, is diluting the solid Democratic base in Dade County. The Cubans identify with Reagan and the Republicans because they have an image of taking a hard line against Castro, says Dr. Kelley.
The Republicans are taking advantage of their increased numbers by focusing on races in congressional districts around Orlando, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa.
Democratic incumbents they feel they may have a chance to unseat are US Rep. Bill Nelson in 11th District, the 14th District's Daniel Mica, the 16th District's Larry Smith, and the Seventh District's Sam Gibbons.
''We have a better shot now than ever before,'' said Craig Smith, director of education and party building for the state Republican committee. ''The state is turning more conservative and more Republican.''
Asked if he seriously believed the Republican challenger could defeat Mr. Gibbons, a popular 22-year House veteran, Mr. Smith said, ''I didn't say I was sure we could win in those districts, I said we had the best shot.''
Those districts were chosen, he said, because the Republicans believed the Democratic incumbents were vulnerable on the issues, and the Republican challengers have shown ability in raising money and gathering support.
He said Congressman Ireland's switch was a boost to the Republican Party because it showed that the party was a credible force in the state.
''The party is pushing toward a stronger shot at the governor's job in 1986, '' he said. ''In a lot of rural areas, the Republican Party is fielding candidates for the first time, and they are building local organizations that will be able to get the vote out in 1986.''
But the Democrats are feeling secure in their position as the state's dominant party.
''I don't expect any surprises in the congressional elections,'' says Kathy Kossman, executive director of the Democratic State Committee. ''The incumbents will work out in the congressional elections, although we are going after Andy Ireland.''
She agrees that Florida is becoming more of a two-party state as more Northerners move into it, but she does not see that as a threat to the Democrats' hold on top state government posts and control of the legislature in 1986.
''The polls have shown people are pleased with their Democratic leadership in the state,'' she said. ''They may prefer Ronald Reagan for president, but they like having the Democrats in Tallahassee.'' GEORGIA
Despite Ronald Reagan's apparent edge in Jimmy Carter's home state, popular Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, a military-affairs expert, is considered a cinch for election to a third term.
But Republicans are hoping to pick up a House seat in suburban Atlanta with lawyer Patrick Lynn Swindall's challenge to incumbent Democrat Elliot Levitas. Although a Levitas pollster sees only a ''remote'' chance that the congressman will be beaten, some political analysts predict a close finish. Mr. Swindall, young and articulate, has a well-financed campaign.
Conservative Democrat George Darden, elected to fill the unexpired term of ultraconservative Democrat Larry P. McDonald, who was killed when the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner last year, should be able to win election to a full term against a lesser-known opponent.
Democratic US Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr., a liberal white whose two-thirds-black Atlanta-area district was once represented by Andrew Young, now Atlanta's mayor, trounced four blacks in the primary, avoiding a runoff. He has no Republican opposition. John Lewis, a black City Council member in Atlanta, said many blacks did not want to be represented by Hosea Williams, a controversial civil rights leader, who finished second, with 29 percent. But, Mr. Lewis said, the seat may be ''up for grabs'' in 1986, when stronger black candidates are expected to run.
Republican US Rep. Newt Gingrich, who says conservatives have a new ''opportunity'' in the Reagan era to be creative and constructive instead of obstructive, has never won really big in his conservative, suburban Atlanta district. Although he is running against a lesser-known opponent this year, veteran state Rep. Gerald Johnson, analysts here say Mr. Gingrich will have to run hard to win a fourth House term. But he is favored. LOUISIANA
Under Louisiana's unusual election system, candidates of all parties are pitted against each other in the September primary. On Sept. 29, all congressional incumbents won more than 50 percent of the votes. Thus, the only national office at stake on the state's Nov. 6 ballot will be that of US president (and vice-president).
US Sen. J. Bennett Johnston Jr. (D) easily won reelection, as did seven incumbent US representatives.
In a 58 percent black New Orleans district, white US Rep. Lindy Boggs, a liberal Democrat, beat a black, former state appeals court Judge Israel Augustine Jr., by 60 to 39 percent. He had hoped to become the state's first black congressman since Reconstruction.
Mrs. Boggs received 90 percent of the white vote and a third of the black vote, according to an analysis of key precincts by Edward F. Renwick, professor of political science at Loyola University. ''It was a case of a black liberal challenging a white liberal but not being able to offer any compelling reason why black voters should cast their ballots against an incumbent,'' says Dr. Renwick. MISSISSIPPI
The black vote in this state could provide a winning edge to a couple of Republicans.
In the US Senate race, Republican incumbent Thad Cochran appears to have substantial support among middle-class blacks as well as those in some rural areas. He has a reputation for good personal service to constituents, regardless of race, and is campaigning hard for black votes. His opponent is Democrat William Winter, a popular former governor with a record of fairness on racial issues. The two men agree on many issues.
Mr. Winter needs most of the black vote, and about a third of the white vote, to win. His main problem is Walter Mondale's unpopularity among whites, says a Winter staffer. But the former governor has recently cut into Senator Cochran's lead with more aggressive ads, attacking Cochran's off-and-on support of certain social security benefits.
If the Deep South is to get a black congressman, he may come from the Mississippi Delta. But black Democratic candidate Robert Clark Jr. could, ironically, lose his second bid for the seat due to some black support for his white opponent. Republican first-term Rep. Webb Franklin is seen by some blacks as working hard at getting federal help for important local needs as basic as city water and paved streets.
Mr. Clark's campaign was marred this summer by disorganization and resentment when outside labor organizations stepped in to try to improve operations. But that may have passed.
Clark lost narrowly in 1982, even though the majority of the district's voters are black. Although redrawn since that election, the district is now even more black. A large black voter turnout is hoped for by the Clark campaign organization. NORTH CAROLINA
''It's war. We're running hard and scared,'' says the co-director of Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.'s campaign for the US Senate against ultraconservative Republican incumbent Jesse Helms.
Governor Hunt, once ahead by as much as 20 points, now is considered in a tight contest in which race has become a big issue.
Senator Helms began to gain when he ran ads making him the ''champion of white people in this state,'' says University of North Carolina political scientist Merle Black. He has done this, says Professor Black, by his repeated denunciation of passage by Congress of a bill establishing a holiday to honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the black civil rights leader. Helms has also run ads with a picture of Hunt and Jesse Jackson together. Democrats are hoping for a backlash against Helms.
Another ad working well for Helms blames Hunt for voting for a major tax increase in a resolution at a national governors' meeting. Hunt's team complains that the Helms ad ignores the other part of the resolution: for spending cuts to help balance the budget. Helms hopes to pin the label of ''Mondale liberal'' on Hunt.
Hunt, who is better described as a moderate-to-conservative progressive, hopes to stir fears about Helms being a right-winger, isolated from other Republicans and favoring social security cutbacks.
In the gubernatorial race, Democrat Rufus Edmisten is believed to be leading, but observers say he could lose to Republican James G. Martin if Reagan wins by a landslide. Race is not an issue in the contest for governor. SOUTH CAROLINA
Although he would be 87 in the final year of another term, Republican US Sen. Strom Thurmond is well on his way to easy reelection. As he geared up his campaign last year, ''Thurmond built up an image of being invincible'' and chased off any potential strong opponents, says Jack Bass, co-author of ''The Transformation of Southern Politics.'' Senator Thurmond raised a hefty campaign fund and got endorsements from blacks and some Democrats.
The three Republican and three Democratic congressmen are likely to win reelection in this Deep South state, which University of South Carolina political scientist Earl Black describes as being ''probably more Republican than a lot of states'' - due in part to Thurmond.
The textile industry is hard-pressed, with some recent layoffs. But much of the state's economy is improving, says Professor Black. As in many Southern states, blacks provide a key part of the Democratic vote.
In a district with many textile mills, Republican US Rep. Carroll Campbell Jr. faces a tough fight from Democratic lawyer Jeff Smith, who some see as a rising political figure for later races. Mr. Campbell wants a solid win to bolster his chances in a race for the US Senate or for governor in 1986. TENNESSEE
This could be where the Democrats pick up a Senate seat - the one being vacated by retiring Republican Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. The Democratic candidate, US Rep. Albert Gore Jr., whose father was a US senator, looks strong in his race against Republican former state Sen. Victor Ashe.
With few exceptions, the campaign has been hard-fought, but clean. Mr. Ashe has tried, with limited success, to paint Congressman Gore as a liberal.
Gore is closely identified with environmental protection and has developed a reputation for being a thorough worker in Congress. At the most, he is ''liberal'' only by Tennessee's generally conservative standards, says Republican lawyer Lewis Donelson.
Although he's seen as a bright politician, Ashe is considered by many, including some Republicans, as one who can't ''get along'' with political colleagues, says Tennessee's attorney general, Mike Cody, a Democrat. He says Ashe has taken more conservative positions, including opposition to an Equal Rights Amendment, as the campaign has progressed.
Barring an unforeseen event, Democrat Bart Gordon, a lawyer, is favored over Joe Simpkins (R), a construction executive, in the race for Gore's House seat in a strongly Democratic district. VIRGINIA
The Republicans lead, according to local polls, in both the presidential and US Senate contests in Virginia.
Gov. Charles S. Robb (D) led a search for a strong candidate against incumbent Sen. John W. Warner, but only little-known former state Rep. Edyth C. Harrison was willing to take on the task. The Republican strength statewide has led both parties to focus on the congressional races.
US Rep. James R. Olin of Roanoke, a moderate Democrat, probably has the closest race - against former state Sen. Ray L. Garland, a moderate Republican who has built his campaign almost entirely around his support for President Reagan. In the mountainous Ninth District of southwest Virginia, Democratic US Rep. Frederick Boucher is seen as leading state Rep. C. Jefferson Stafford (R).
Democrats see a chance of defeating Republican US Rep. Stan Parris in the suburban Washington Eighth District. Their candidate is state Sen. Richard Saslaw, whose political strength is based in populous Fairfax County. WEST VIRGINIA
Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat who lists his current assets at $100 million, has maintained throughout his 16 years of elected public service that he wants to be judged on his merits and not his wealth. But his money has a way of becoming an issue in each campaign, and this year - with Governor Rockefeller running for the US Senate - it is again.
Polls show Rockefeller well ahead of his Republican opponent, John Raese of Morgantown, a newcomer to politics.
Now completing his second consecutive term as governor, Rockefeller is running for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Jennings Randolph.
Mr. Raese himself comes from a wealthy family with extensive interests in coal and limestone, but his family's fortune is no match for that of Rockefeller , who spent a record $11.7 million getting elected governor in 1980.
Raese has accused Rockefeller of having nothing else to show but his wealth, and Rockefeller has countered that Raese has no experience. There has been little discussion of other issues.
In the gubernatorial race, former Republican Gov. Arch Moore is well ahead in his try for an unprecedented third (nonconsecutive) term against Clyde See, a conservative Democrat who is speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Democrats hold all four West Virginia congressional seats, and polls indicate they will retain them. Two of the incumbents, however, will be tested.
Democratic US Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, seeking a second term in the First District, is being challenged by Republican former state Rep. Jim Altmeyer, who has strong party backing.
In the Second District the GOP has an uphill battle in its attempt to recapture the seat, lost to Democrat Harley O. Staggers Jr. two years ago. Their candidate is dairy farmer Cleve Benedict, who vacated the House seat in 1982 to challenge Democratic US Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Mr. Benedict has to live down some political pranks he tried, and which backfired, against Senator Byrd in that election.
Contributing to this report were Richard Grimes in West Virginia, Dale Eisman in Virginia, Allan L. Katz in Louisiana, and Gil Klein in Florida.
Next: the Far West