ATLANTA — Across the South, Republicans are cautiously whistling Dixie.
True, their presidential candidate isn't doing too well in the region. Current polls portray Bob Dole as the weakest GOP standard-bearer in the South in two decades.
But the struggle for Congress is another story. Republicans hope to add House seats to their growing Southern total this year - albeit not as many as the 16 they wrested from Democrats in 1994, or the nine they picked up in 1992. Such gains would help the GOP consolidate the realignment of the South from a Democratic to a Republican power base. Moreover, Republicans may lose seats in the North and West, so adding them below the Mason-Dixon line is crucial if the party is to retain control of Congress.
"I don't think there's any other region where the stakes are quite as high," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
"This shift in the South has changed the position of the Republicans from permanent minority to either majority or near majority," he says. "The obvious implication is if you have a Democratic president ... they will be in position to deadlock any real initiatives."
"There's no question that the Republican realignment is continuing and will continue in full force," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta.
That's not the case at the presidential level, where Democrats have the potential to have their best Southern showing since 1976. Indeed, polls show Clinton leading or neck and neck with Dole in the five Southern or border states he captured in '92 - Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Clinton is also competitive in North Carolina and Florida, states that haven't voted for a Democratic candidate for 20 years, and in Virginia, which no Democrat has captured since President Johnson in 1964.
"There's a Democratic jet stream blowing politically," says Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster in Virginia.
Clinton's huge gap over Dole - some polls show him leading by double digits - doesn't bode well for Republican turnout in either the presidential election or the congressional races, some contend.
"Republicans are very anxious," says Hastings Wyman, publisher of Southern Political Report. "If the Republican organization's anxiety turns to depression ... a lot of voters will stay home. They'll say this race is not a good one. On the other hand if the party feels like it has a real shot, and they're all energized, they'll turn out."
Still, although a couple of Southern freshman Republicans may lose their congressional seats, most others will hang onto theirs, especially leaders such as Georgian Newt Gingrich and Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay.
"There's too many safe districts that were created as a consequence of the redistricting of the '90s ... that I don't think we're going to see any complete changing of direction back toward the Democrats," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
In addition, the South has 23 open House seats, five that were Republican and 18 held by Democrats. The Republican seats are expected to remain in the party. What's unclear is how many of the 18 Democratic seats will turn Republican. Some political analysts guess the number will range from two to six; others say as many as nine or 10. Others won't speculate.
"The general direction is toward conservatism and Republicanism, but I don't think it's going to be a one-party region; it will be a two-party competitive region that frequently but not always leans Republican," says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
"Sometimes you take two steps forward in the Republican direction and one and a half steps back in the Democratic direction," Mr. Sabato continues, "and so you have this toing and froing process; it isn't a straight line, and people overinterpret every election.
"That last-minute trend can lift a party up 10 seats or drop a party 10 seats," he adds. "Nobody has a crystal ball; no one knows what that last little uptick is going to be."
On the Senate side, some political experts predict Republicans will do fairly well in races in the South. In the region, all four incumbent Democratic senators are retiring. "If the Republicans can hold onto their older veterans - [Strom] Thurmond and [Jesse] Helms - I'd be surprised if they don't win at least two of these four open seats," says Mr. Black.
For the most part, Southern Republicans are defining the ideological tone of the districts they're running in, Black says. "Many of the Democrats running for the House ... are basically positioning themselves as pretty conservative Democrats."
Republicans will have to pick up seats in the South to keep control of Congress. "They're going to lose plenty elsewhere," in states such as Washington, Ohio, New York, and Illinois, Sabato says. Clinton's popularity, economic reasons, and the natural rebound from the 1994 Republican landslide account for why Republicans are in trouble outside the South, he says.