Washington — So much for the ``Southern strategy.'' Senate Democrats rejected the argument that Southerners and Westerners ought to hold the party's most prominent post yesterday, passing over the bids of popular senators from Louisiana and Hawaii to elect a proudly liberal Northeasterner to the position of Senate majority leader.
In elevating Sen. George Mitchell of Maine to one of the most prominent spots in Washington, Senate Democrats confounded earlier predictions of experts who, in the wake of Michael Dukakis's repudiation at the presidential polls earlier this month, argued that Democrats would be wary of placing any more liberal Northeasterners in top slots anytime soon.
``The Democratic Party needs quality as much as ideology,'' says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. ``There's nobody here [among Senate Democrats] who is going to be running away from George Mitchell.''
Senator Mitchell's victory over Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii represents the culmination of months of furious politicking among the three to succeed the present majority leader, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Senator Byrd, who has served as leader of the Senate Democrats since 1976, announced earlier this year that he would relinquish the majority leadership at the beginning of the 101st Congress in January to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ``I'll be able to do more for West Virginia,'' says Byrd.
But Byrd's decision came as a great relief to many of his Democratic colleagues, who lauded him for his skills as a parliamentary tactician, but despaired over the image conveyed on television by his distinctly Old World mannerisms. ``On TV, Byrd goes beyond fuddy-duddy; he's one of the most untelegenic people on earth,'' says one Democratic senator who asked not to be identified.
In recent years, senators became increasingly eager to find an attractive spokesman from their ranks who could successfully counter the wildly successful public appeals of President Reagan.
``For the period he served, Byrd was about the perfect person to be majority leader. We got a lot of legislation out of here with him,'' says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey. ``Now I think it's time when the `Mitchell touch' will be appropriate.''
Indeed, Mitchell is a battle-hardened partisan, whose ready smile and soft-spoken demeanor have won him friends even among those who disagree with him. Democrats and Republicans alike were impressed by Mitchell's comportment as a panel member during the Iran-contra hearings when he interrogated Lt. Col. Oliver North with tact and tenacity at a time when many Americans had elevated Mr. North to hero status.
Consequently, Senate Democrats expect Mitchell to be a saber-rattler for their causes - but a tactful one, whose partisanship does not alienate people the way, a few Senators contend, House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas has. Senator Lautenberg will not go so far as to liken the ``Mitchell touch'' to a velvet shiv, but he does allow the senator's manner is like a ``velvet glove with a little bit of hard stuff in it: He's able to fight and he's able to stand up to very popular figures.''
Mitchell is also expected to cause less ideological discomfiture among Democrats than Byrd. While Byrd is a partisan Democrat whose ideological inclinations left him leaning toward the Reagan administration's position on numerous budget, defense, and foreign policy issues, Mitchell is a partisan Democrat whose personal ideology leaves him squarely with the liberal camp.
``We couldn't be happier,'' says one arms control lobbyist. ``He's voted with us 100 percent of the time.''
It is nearly impossible to say whether all - or, for that matter, any - of these considerations brought victory to Mitchell.
The campaign for majority leader, like campaigns for all Senate leadership posts, took place behind closed doors. All three candidates had their champions: Johnston commanded the loyalty of most Southerners as well as many members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he chairs; Inouye has held the third ranking leadership post of democratic conference secretary; Mitchell drew support from Northerners and younger members looking for a fresh face.
Moreover, all three candidates promised to improve Senate working conditions, raised funds for Democratic challengers and incumbents, and did all the small favors one might expect from someone endeavoring to curry the favor of his peers.
Each candidate said he had sufficient support to carry him past the first round of voting yesterday. But by the time the secret ballots were counted, Mitchell led the others 27 to 14 to 14. That was one vote short of what Mitchell needed for a victory, and the other two candidates conceded.
All Senate leadership posts for the coming Congress were filled yesterday.
As expected, Republicans reelected Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas as their leader, while Democratic majority whip Alan Cranston (D) of California, fought off a challenge for his post from Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky.
But the race for majority leader was the one holding everyone's attention. Senators seemed especially conscious of the message carried with Mitchell's ascendency.