Campaign '88: The battle for the South. Parties vie for the South's conservatives

The story of the solid South, that crumbled political bedrock under the national Democratic Party, can be heard most afternoons around the coal stove in W.E. Griffin's crossroads store. ``People around here are 80 percent registered Democrat,'' says Calvin Davenport, sitting elbows on crossed knees on an upended wooden box. ``And they vote about 80 percent Republican down the line.''

Such is the hollow shell that remains of the old-line Democratic South.

Mr. Davenport, an east Carolina general contractor, admits that if he could become a Republican secretly, ``I would have switched a long time ago. But some people are Democrats so strong they might not want a Republican building a house for them.''

Old loyalties loosen slowly, but they are loosening.

Vast numbers of white Southerners remain Democrats only because county clerks and sheriffs are still chosen in the Democratic primary, because they fear social or business backlash, or because of sentimental attachment to the party of their parents.

Yet to win the White House next November, the Democrats need to carry much of the South.

``An irrefutable argument can be made,'' says William Galston of the Roosevelt Center, and former issues director for the Mondale campaign, ``that the election will be won or lost in the South.''

So on March 8, Super Tuesday, Democrats want Southern voters to promote a nominee who can come back in November and beat the Republicans here.

The middle-class modern South is not dramatically different from other regions. But the South remains poorer, less schooled, blacker, more religious, more rural, more conservative, and - in recent presidential voting - more Republican than the rest of the country.

White Southerners have not grown more conservative. But an immensely popular Ronald Reagan blew wide open a Southern belief that was already badly strained: that conservatives belong with Democrats.

As the presidential candidates curry favor in the South, they encounter a region distinctly more tradition-minded and conservative than the rest of the country on cultural and national defense issues. Southerners more often than other Americans favor school prayer, high defense spending, and aid to the contras.

Year by year, the South is steadily becoming more suburban, middle class, and Republican. Country folk go to college, move to metropolitan suburbs, and find their traditional values can transplant intact into upwardly mobile Republicanism. Northern professionals, largely moderate Republicans, move to Sunbelt cities and add to party ranks.

Black Republicans can be found, too. The party of Lincoln, the political home of blacks from emancipation until the New Deal, still attracts a remnant of those voters. Some members of the growing black middle class also identify with the business-minded Republicans.

But fully 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic year in, year out. With voter turnouts as high as or higher than among whites, blacks have become the backbone of the Democratic Party - the very party once monolithic in the South as the party of white supremacy.

White Southerners have long mixed their patriotism with deep suspicion of the federal government. But they have also looked on government - from the county up - to deliver goods: paved roads, rural electricity, farm subsidies, defense jobs. A bread-and-butter approach to politics is still common.

But for many Southern voters the old suspicions fit neatly with the spreading middle-class view of government less as patron than tax collector.

Griffin's store is a comfortable corner of the fading traditional South. Talk runs to moral decay and US toughness in the world. The Democratic Party is seen as the party of easy money, for better and worse, for the undeserving on the welfare rolls - usually meaning blacks - and for tobacco farmers themselves.

``This is pretty much your status quo-type country,'' notes Tom Bass, a tobacco farmer, spitting into the stove.

Not so in nearby Rocky Mount, N.C., a small aspiring city with some purchase on Sunbelt-style growth. White Democrats here concern themselves with stoking the local economy and improving the schools. Philosophically, many prefer the business-like Republican approach to government.

But below the gubernatorial level of politics, philosophy figures small. ``If you want to get anything done at the local level, you've got to go to the Democrats,'' says Democrat Ronald Deans, owner of a Rocky Mount truck dealership who voted twice for Reagan and once for Republican Gov. James Martin.

An earlier South, before the great civil rights battles of the 1960s, sought social stability, says University of Georgia historian Numan Bartley, ``often at the expense of economic progress.''

Conservatism has never met as much resistance here. Poor whites resisted any change that threatened to upset white supremacy. Southern labor never strongly organized into unions, never developed the working-class politics of the Northeast.

Since the civil rights era, segregation has virtually disappeared from the campaign vocabulary. Economic development has taken its place. The reigning outlook of the Sunbelt South is what scholars Earl and Merle Black, in their book ``Politics and Society in the South,'' call ``entrepreneurial individualism.'' It translates into low taxes and government programs that benefit the middle class.

Democrats still hold a 5-to-3 party identification advantage over Republicans in the states of the old Confederacy. But the Democratic edge has been eroding year by year. In the past five presidential elections, the only Democrat to win in the South was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and he lost the South in 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

Democrats, says Mr. Griffin, reclining near the coal stove of his crossroads store, ``are kind of like kinfolks. You're related to them and you've got to get along with them the best you can.''

First of four articles. Tomorrow: Southern Republicanism grows with prosperity.

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