Southern Democrats take Super Tuesday back to drawing board. SUPER FLOP

For Southern Democrats who thought they had the system rigged this time, the posture has been all too familiar. In Florida, Democratic Senate nominee Buddy MacKay was kept busy swearing off Michael Dukakis - vowing that he preferred Rep. Richard Gephardt in the Democratic primaries - and calling himself a ``Bentsen Democrat.''

In Mississippi, Democratic Senate nominee Wayne Dowdy - though trailing in polls - wanted no help from either Mr. Dukakis or Lloyd Bentsen.

In Georgia, embattled Tom Murphy, Speaker of the state House of Representatives, suddenly broke off his support for Mr. Dukakis a month ago, saying he was no longer sure whom he would vote for.

These were the kinds of embarrassments that Super Tuesday, the massive Southern primary last March 8, was supposed to avoid.

Already, Southern Democrats are talking about reworking the election calendar next time - possibly splitting it in two. Officials in some states, particularly Kentucky and Virginia, are discussing moving away from the 16-state primary date on their own.

The basic failure of Super Tuesday, according to its critics:

It allowed Dukakis - one of the more liberal Democrats running for the nomination - to appear to be a credible national candidate without winning a significant number of Deep South white votes.

Dukakis did it, argues Harold Stanley, a political scientist at the University of Rochester and a close student of Super Tuesday, by winning Texas and Florida, states he was unlikely to win in a general election.

It could easily have turned out differently.

Professor Stanley notes that if the two most conser vative Democrats in the race, Mr. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, had not split each other's vote, their combined support could have won nine states, to four for Dukakis and three for Jesse Jackson. As it happened, Dukakis, Senator Gore, and the Rev. Mr. Jackson each won five states, while Gephardt took one state.

``But controlling the field of candidates is something that's just not possible,'' Stanley adds.

The architects of Super Tuesday sought three main goals: to divert some candidate attention from the Iowa caucuses to the South, to get higher voter turnout in Southern primaries, and to help nominate a moderate Democrat that could win in November.

As it happened, Dukakis spent twice as many campaign days in Iowa and New Hampshire as he spent in the 14 Southern and Border states. Even Mr. Gore, whose strategy centered most heavily on Super Tuesday, spent more money in New Hampshire than in any Super Tuesday state except Texas.

Voter turnout was dramatically higher only in those states moving from caucuses to primaries for the first time. Neither party won many crossover votes from the other, although the Republicans expected to pull some conservative Democrats into their primaries.

And the Democratic ticket came to election day with the South as its weakest region, excepting possibly the Mountain West, in spite of Texas Senator Bentsen's presence on the ticket.

The main problem was the sheer expense of campaigning in such a huge region at once, only three weeks after the New Hampshire primary. Dividing the primaries over two days could help spread the cost.

It could also give the region a chance to winnow the field, then promote a candidate. One primary just allowed the South to set up the race for other states.

Jay Hakes, an aide to Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D) and a designer of the primary, says that he and Senator Graham are satisfied that Super Tuesday improved on the Democratic nominating process - even if not enough. ``We need more of it, not less,'' he says.

The altering of the calendar will be done as soon as possible after the election, Mr. Hakes says, to avoid designing it for any particular 1992 candidate.

Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Conference, notes that the ``pandering'' to special interests in the Democratic Party was less visible this year than in 1984.

But the party still lacks a core message, he says, and factions still dominate the nomination contests. Further, he adds, the Democrats generally considered the best candidates chose not to run.

``There ought to be something you can do about that.''

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