THE South, and more broadly the Sunbelt, has felt victimized lately in national Democratic politics. Lyndon Johnson has been out of office for 18 years. Jimmy Carter, who had lost the presidency even in 1976 outside the South, was drubbed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 in the Sunbelt. Republican inroads into traditional Democratic turf seemed to be getting deeper. The Democratic Party's preference for Northern candidates, organized labor, and women's activists seemed assured by a nomination event schedule launch ed in Iowa and New Hampshire. So it is not surprising that Southern Democratic leaders want to accentuate their region's clout by clustering as many as 15 Southern state primaries and caucuses into early March -- the second Tuesday, or the following Saturday for states with scheduling conflicts.
Why not? States are certainly within their rights to schedule their nominating events as they see fit, within the ``window'' set by the national party's rules.
Given the front-loading of the present system, it would be more surprising if the South and Sunbelt did not gear up to play the game more effectively. ``If you want to increase your clout in the nominating process, and if you feel the nominees that have been picked are not to your liking, you've got to get in there early and dilute the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire,'' says Austin Ranney, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
In subsequent elections there could be no end to the stampede to the front of the nomination season. If so, this would mean something like a national primary and caucus, without the kind of testing of candidates over a period of time that occurs under the present system. The pressure could be on for a regional primary system, which some reform advocates favor.
The clout of a Super Tuesday Southern primary will still depend heavily on perceptions. The region's argument that as many as one-third of the convention delegates will be chosen at that time may cause analysts and the media to discount the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire -- but maybe it won't. The counterargument also has merit: An early momentum from the North could produce an even greater acceleration in the South if the region's primaries were bunched.
Winners exploit whatever system exists. It would be hard to make the case that any of the recent losing presidential nomination candidates were the victims chiefly of the system. Many had money. They had the time to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire and anywhere else. They had exposure on television debates. Basically they failed to cut it, that's all.
It's up to those who want the South and Sunbelt to play a greater role in Democratic politics, to stem defections to the GOP, and so to make presidential elections again a more even matchup, to figure out a way to do it.
Certainly there is no way the Democrats can come back in presidential politics without making some headway in the South. Changing the schedule alone will not do it. But the proposal does reflect a greater activism and assertiveness among Sunbelt Democrats. Republican success in their home territory has made these Democrats more confident that their brand of politics, their fiscal conservatism and attitudes on defense, are needed if their party is to compete credibly for the political center. If the Sout h wants to put forward better candidates, argue party policies more convincingly, and play the political game more effectively -- as suggested by accentuating a regional Super Tuesday -- the net result appears a plus.