PENSACOLA, FLA. — The I-10 corridor, stretching across the Gulf coast of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana, is no place for Republican presidential candidates in late October. It traverses some of the most conservative territory in the South - a slice of America that, by now, should be in the hip pocket of any GOP presidential contender.
That Bob Dole spent 24 precious hours courting voters along this ribbon of blacktop late this week, in the Florida Panhandle, underscores the depth of his troubles.
Two years ago, western Florida sent to Congress one of the most ideological members of the GOP freshman class. In his first bid for reelection, Rep. Joe Scarborough is so popular he's virtually untouchable. But 12 days before the election, Mr. Dole is still struggling to tuck the South - reliably Republican in presidential elections over the past 20 years - into his fold. In stops from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans, he courted "red meat" Republicans as much as conservative Democrats and Independent voters.
"The fact that Bob Dole is in Panama City and Jacksonville at this point in the race indicates he is having trouble with his base," says Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Florida should be 57, 58, 59 percent behind Dole. It's maybe 50-50 at best."
Not that the polls aren't tightening, or won't tighten, in the campaign's final days. Louisiana voters, for example, typically decide late, and more Florida Republicans seem to be falling in behind their nominee. But even Dole's Southern strategist, Warren Tompskin, explains the late-season visit here in modest terms: "We're swelling the base. We've got to make sure people go vote."
By the Dole campaign's own estimates, at least half of the South is in play, including big states Florida and Georgia. While Republicans are poised to gain a modest number of new House seats, Dole may become the first GOP candidate to lose a majority of Southern states since 1976. The South, crucial to GOP presidential politics, is even more important in a race where Dole is also struggling in big states in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and West.
In a risky move highlighting his troubles, the Dole camp this week tried to persuade Texas billionaire Ross Perot to drop his third party bid and endorse the GOP nominee - something that, at press time, Perot aides were saying their candidate wouldn't do.
But even if Mr. Perot were to back Dole, it is not certain many of his supporters, adamant deficit hawks who view Dole's tax cuts skeptically, would follow. It's also too late to remove Perot's name from most ballots.
There are several explanation for why Dole is wrestling with his base. According to a recent national survey by Wirthlin Worldwide, a Virginia-based polling group, Dole enjoys the support of about 76 percent of self-identified Republicans. That number, however, hides changes in the broader GOP base, and may be higher than Dole's regional support among Southern party members. An increasing number of women - 35 to 40 percent - now call themselves Independents, and many conservative Democrats who backed Ronald Reagan have returned home.
Part of Dole's problem is beyond his control. President Clinton enjoys unusually high support for a Democrat in western Florida, for example, because of the federal disaster relief he brought to the Gulf Coast after hurricane Opal. He also bit into the agriculture vote by quelling the "great tomato war," which had Florida farmers ready to take up salad forks against cheap Mexican imports.
The economy in the South, as in other parts of the country, is solid, making Dole's warnings difficult to sell. At the same time, the losses Democrats suffered in 1994 have energized the party across the region.
BUT Dole has made some costly mistakes down here as well. His immigration policies have cut his support among Cubans by as much as a third. He has made little attempt to reach out to blue-collar conservative Democrats, according to Florida-based GOP strategist Paul McCormick.
Perhaps most significant, Dole has failed to work social issues to his advantage. Many southerners are culturally conservative. While Dole has touched on social concerns - voicing support for school prayer, a ban on some late-term abortions, tougher antidrug measures - he generally casts them in fiscal terms.
The candidate's pro-family policy is a tax credit for children. His school reform is "opportunity scholarships," a euphemism for vouchers. "Republicans have framed these issues all wrong," says Mr. Scher. "At least in the way women perceive them. Too many women are suspicious of accounting gimmicks."
Dole is, of course, running against two Southern Democrats who have made a convincing play for the center. That, according to Atlanta GOP pollster Whit Ayres, is an undeniable factor in Dole's standing in the region.