Ronald Reagan's Southern strategy -- to force the Carter campaign to spend valuable time and money in the South -- appears to be working. Mr. Reagan has Jimmy Carter on the run in a number of Southern states and could win them, acording to assessments by Republican, nonpartisan, and even Democratic sources.
Whatever campaign effort Mr. Carter makes in his native South means less effort in the industrial North Central and New England states, where the President also must do well if he hopes to win re-election in November.
Four years ago, the South provided Carter's electoral base. He carried every Southern state except Virginia, although the outcomes in several of them were close. This time around he must do nearly the same, says his pollster, Patrick Caddell.
Reagan campaigned hard in the South during the primaries and made appearances lst week in Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans.
Carter, meanwhile, opened his main post- convention drive with a Labor Day appearance in Tuscumbia, Ala.
At that gathering he not only condemned the Ku Klux Klan but also said it was nice to be back "where people don't speak with an accent." This local-felow image is one that will be invoked repeatedly in the South, according to one of his campaign aides, to try to revive the Southern pride that helped him in 1976.
With 8 1/2 weeks to go before the general election, the publisher and editor of the bi- weekly Southern Political Report, Hastings Wyman, offers this assessment of the region:
* Reagan is ahead in Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia, Florida, louisiana, and Alabama are leaning toward him. These states have 80 electoral votes.
* Carter is ahead in North and South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee -- states with a combined 49 electoral votes.
But Carter is gaining ground in all of these states, Mr. Wyman says. "There's a lot of softness in the Reagan support," he adds, whereas Carter support has "a lot of resiliency."
Carter campaign strategists, however, are more pessimistic than Wyman. They agree with most of his assessment but put Carter and Reagan about even at this point in South Carolina and TEnnessee. Even Georgia, the President's home state, is not a "shoot-in," says one Carter campaign strategist.
Reagan's main appeal in the South, according to both Democratic and Republican campaign leaders in this region, is to the conservative who is concerned that the United States may not be spending enough money on defense.
Carter forces are trying to counter this by raising the question of who will pay for the additional defense proposals advocated by Reagan. They will try to show that Carter has increased defenses spending as needed.
But there are other issue and factors at play, as a closer look at some Southern states shows:
South Carolina. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, running as a born-again Christian, won the support of fundamentalist and evengelical groups, says South Carolina Republican Harry S. Dent. That vote has "turned around" for 1980, he contends.
Orin Briggs, a Columbian attorney and a Baptist, has been trying to organize that vote for Reagan and predicts it will go heavily for the Republican. He admits the number of fundamentalists and evangelical involved is small, but important because they were on the Carter side. Many of them see Carter as ambiguous on federal funding for abortions and support of voluntary prayers in public schools, Mr. Briggs says.
Echoing a sentiment heard often among Reagan backers in the South, Briggs says Carter was backed as a born-again Christian, a "good ol' boy." But as President, Briggs says, Carter has "turned out to be a Connecticut Yankee."
North Carolina. Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. will be working hard for Carter. But as one Republican notes, ultraconservative US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) "can get the white folk pretty turned up" for Reagan.
Florida. The state is at least a "tossup" -- with Reagan ahead today -- says Wayne Bailey, a Democratic National Committee member and chairman of the political science department at Stetson University in DeLand.
For the moment, the massive influx of Cuban refugees is hurting the President in south Florida, says Carter coordinator for the state Jay Hakes. He sees the Carter effort lagging at the moment, but says in the weeks ahead efforts will be made to convice senior citizens that Reagan opposes hospital cost containment and national health insurance and wants social security to be voluntary.
Florida Republican coodinator herb Harmon will stress that Reagan does not favor voluntary social security and will try to convice the elderly that "on balance" Reagan is better because Carter has damaged the economy.
Alabama. Reagan's Labor Day remark about the the state being the birthplace and home of the Ku Klux Klan "hurt [the GOP candidate] badly," says former Birmingham mayor David Vann, a Democrat. It has helped to reinforce Carter's Southern-ness, he says, as voters respond defensively about their state.
Still, contends state Republican chairman William Harris, the Alabama Gop is better organized for a presidential race than at any other time in the past 10 to 15 years. An all-out fight is planned, he says.
Mississippi. Carter carried the state by fewer than 12,000 votes in 1976. A heavy black vote, as in other Southern states, may have tipped the balance for him.
Wyman predicts another strong black vote in Mississippi and other Southern states for Carter this time.
For the first time in many years, a Mississippi Democratic governor is actively campaigning for an incumbent Democratic President. But the Democratic machinery at the local level has suffered so long from "abuse and neglect" and "racist-oriented" governors that it may not match Republican efforts this year, says state democratic executive committeeman Jack Harper Jr.