Reagan voters in the South: Where are they now? Democratic gains could disappear in fall

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The owner of a general store in Sandhill, Miss., Billy Carter, voted for Albert Gore Jr. on Tuesday. But in November, he intends to vote for George Bush. Mr. Carter voted in the Democratic primary only because of that state's Senate race and will probably vote Republican in November, no matter who the candidates are.

``I reckon I might be the Reaganite that [political commentators] talk about,'' he explains.

Senator Gore of Tennessee fared best of the Democrats Tuesday with former Reagan voters - a group that Democrats need a large chunk of to win the presidency. But even Gore has his work cut out in holding on to these voters next November.

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A few miles away, in an affluent suburb of Jackson, a professional couple followed the same pattern as Mr. Carter. ``Gore is the most attractive Democrat,'' says the woman, who withholds her name to avoid controversy. But come November, she adds: ``Probably, we will go with Bush.''

The election arithmetic is straightforward. Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of the popular vote nationally in 1984 to Walter Mondale's 41 percent. So Democrats need to gain at least 10 percent from Reagan voters to elect a president.

In the South, the Democrats need an even higher share of converts from the Reagan ranks. This is what Super Tuesday planners had in mind in boosting the voting power of the relatively conservative South.

``We have tried to encourage the candidates to broaden their appeal to people who voted for Ronald Reagan in presidential elections,'' says Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats.

According to New York Times/CBS News exit polling, Gore garnered 36 percent of the Democratic voters Tuesday that voted for Reagan in 1984. Michael Dukakis followed with 28 percent.

New Orleans pollster Joe Walker sees strength for Mr. Dukakis among Reaganites in some Louisiana parish results from Tuesday. Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, affluent and conservative New Orleans suburbs, both were carried by the Massachusetts governor.

Since four out of five voters in both parishes voted in the Democratic primary, and turnout was respectable, Mr. Walker figures Dukakis made inroads into the ranks of Reagan voters.

GOP turnout was setting new records in a region where GOP primaries are historically tiny. Yet in several Southern states each of the three top Democrats won more votes than Vice-President Bush.

Voters, at least in Louisiana, knew little about the candidates and held few strong opinions, Walker notes. Once the parties have picked nominees, he says, ``it's a whole new ballgame.''

Then voters will look closely at both candidates and the decision will turn on a critical point, he says: ``If the conservative Democrats make up their minds that the Democratic nominee is too liberal, they're going to vote for George Bush.''

Partly because both Gore's Tennessee and Dukakis's Massachusetts have a reputation for healthy economies, he says, ``I think a Dukakis and Gore ticket would just swallow the Republicans.''

Gore almost missed his cue with conservative Democrats, notes Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who has studied swing voters for the Democratic Leadership Council.

Until a couple weeks before Super Tuesday, Gore was speaking to Southern conservatism and nationalism through defense issues, says Dr. Greenberg. Richard Gephardt attracted voters in Iowa with his message of trade and economic nationalism.

Gore made a midcourse correction, began incanting his concern for ``average, working men and women'' tirelessly, and beat Gephardt decisively on Tuesday.

``One of the things Gore discovered is that there's a lot of conservatism out there, but it's not expressed in military issues,'' Greenberg says. ``It was expressed on the Republican side on cultural issues and on the Democratic side as economic nationalism.''

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