Clinton's Reelection Prospects Face Danger in Dixie

`IT'S much too early,'' you say. You think it is premature to evaluate President Clinton's prospects for reelection - that the political landscape in 1996 may be far different from what it is today? Perhaps.

Yet as I was gathering impressions in the Deep South recently, I could not escape one conclusion: That many Southerners - even those who are still behind Mr. Clinton - aren't as enthusiastic in their support of him as they were in the fall of 1992.

I further concluded, again tentatively, that the Democrats' ``Southern strategy,'' which elevated Jimmy Carter to the presidency but could not keep him there, may be working that way once again for another Southerner. The South that rallied behind Mr. Carter and gave most of its backing to Clinton may well be pulling away from one of its own once again.

The Democrats didn't exactly plan the adoption of a Southern strategy. It was imposed on them by Jimmy Carter, who got off to an early start in his quest for the 1976 presidential nomination and very early pushed his competitors out of contention.

Many Northern liberals held reservations about the Georgian but voted for him anyway, joining Southerners excited about a long-hoped-for opportunity to place a fellow Southerner in the White House. But by 1980 much of that Southern ardor for Carter had cooled, which opened the door for his exit after only one term.

Clinton will doubtless seek another term and be renominated. That goes with being president and holding the party reins. But despite polls showing him doing pretty well in public approval at the moment, his actual less-than-firm standing with the voters was pinpointed in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that indicated two out of three voters believe the country is off-track.

Fifty-four percent of those asked whether Clinton had started to break the gridlock in Washington said no. That poll holds particular relevancy for voters in the South. There is a strong strain of conservatism among Southerners, who voted twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush on the presidential ticket, though many still call themselves Democrats and cast their ballots that way in local elections.

These are the Southern Democrats who voted for Clinton last time but are falling away from him now. They think that at heart he is a big-spending liberal and point to his health-care plan as the prime example of a president who is set on adding more taxes and bureaucracy to their daily lives.

The Whitewater scandal may or may not be undercutting support for Clinton in the South. I tend to believe a Los Angeles Times-Mirror poll, which indicated that 73 percent of those who voted for Clinton say the press is overblowing Whitewater, while only 40 percent of those who backed Mr. Bush see it that way. That would mean that the impact of this probe is mainly partisan at this point.

But my impression also is that many Southerners who voted for Clinton - partially because they thought Bush had become wishy-washy and mainly because Clinton was from the South - are finding Whitewater to be something less than palatable. They will talk of Clinton's ``greed'' and ``hypocrisy'' as though they were definitely proved ingredients in his business dealings when he was governor of Arkansas.

I recently talked with Democrat Robert Strauss, a Washington veteran ``wise man.'' He said he had just come around to believing that presidents should serve only one six-year term.

He explained that it is becoming very difficult for a president to be reelected and that the chief executive needs more than four years to get his programs enacted.

What appears to be a fading enthusiasm for Clinton in the South may, indeed, mean it will be very difficult for him to be reelected.

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