A WISE and experienced Republican leader was musing the other day about what would be best for his party. Ideally, he said, the candidate would be wearing a genuine Old South plantation hat. Since no such person is presently on the list of Republican availables the next best thing, he said, would be a cowboy hat genuine enough to convince Texas. This explains why Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada put himself, or was brought, into play the other day. It also explains why the conservative wing of the party has been careful not to break with Vice-president George Bush.
Add that it also explains why Sam Nunn of Georgia continues to be the most discussed possible candidate among Democrats. Senator Nunn does not wear a plantation hat, but he comes from Georgia. He has a moderate but unmistakable ``southern'' accent. He is a bona fide southern politician and one highly respected throughout the states of the Old Confederacy.
Geography is still important in American politics. True, a highly popular individual can manipulate the primary system to overcome regional factors. It is possible, at least in theory, to build a national constituency on a narrow regional base.
But at the very foundation of the American political system there are today three main geographic areas with special regional interests and sets of likes and dislikes. He who can bring two of those three together against the third, has a big advantage.
The three are the industrial Northeast, the states of the Old Confederacy, and the Southwest or Sunbelt, which largely means Texas and California.
Our political parties of today descend from a remarkable ``deal'' made in 1791 between the Virginia aristrocacy and New York's Tammany Hall; specifically by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from Virginia and Gov. George Clinton of New York. This remarkable alliance between the Old South and the big city machine of the North set a pattern. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes that ``Until 1964 the `solid south,' Tammany Hall, and other big-city political machines have been the principal supporters of the Democratic Party.''
Until the 1960s. In 1968 Richard Nixon put together a new political alignment of the regions. He broke into the ``Old South,'' tore it away from its ancient moorings, and forged a new coalition that melded the Old South with the Southwest. The Nixon/Reagan political machine was born.
This is the framework within which leaders of both major United States parties are now maneuvering. The key question is whether the Republicans can hang on to the combination of Southwest and Old South. The truly ideal ticket for them would be a plantation hat alongside a cowboy hat.
For Democrats the ideal would be the plantation hat alongside the labor unions of the Northeast.
Paul Laxalt wears a genuine cowboy hat. George Bush's hat is cowboy all right, although not worn with quite the same conviction.
The Democrats must have a southerner on their ticket to have a serious chance of winning. John F. Kennedy won, but only because he had Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. Without Johnson, Kennedy would have lost.
There is much talk among Democrats of Mario Cuomo of New York or Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts or Joe Biden of Delaware, or an upstanding basketball player from New Jersey named Bill Bradley. But the Democrats will carry Boston and New York, Newark and Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago, without any candidate from the Northeast on the ticket. They cannot carry the country without the Old South.
And the Republicans. If only Sam Nunn were a Republican. Their perfect ticket would be Nunn from Georgia and Dole from Kansas. They can't have Sam Nunn. They can have Bob Dole, or Bush, or Laxalt - all from the West or Southwest.
The big question about 1988 is whether the Republicans can hold the Old South. Will the Nixon strategy still work?