Democrats scrambling in once-solid South. Party leaders hunt ways to stop steady voter slide toward Republicans

``WANTED: White males, Southern, age 18 to 39, all income levels, blue and white collar, politically conservative or moderate, favor strong defense and foreign policies, defy tradition by voting Republican.'' Democrats are on a manhunt. Southern white males, breaking with more than 100 years of history, are drifting inexorably toward the Republican Party. Many Southern women are doing the same. Unless the Democrats can find a way to stop it, the party may decline to also-ran status from Texas to Virginia.

Some Democratic officials in the South now talk openly about a ``crisis'' in their party. A South Carolina party leader puts it this way: ``The other day, a businessman told me that he's embarrassed to admit to anyone he's still a Democrat.''

Now Democrats are scrambling to recover.

In Washington, the party's apparat has launched a one-year study by the new Democratic Policy Commission (DPC) to ``build a bridge to the future,'' in the words of party chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. The future, as Democrats see it, lies in the South and the West, the two fastest-growing regions.

Across the country, other elected Democrats worry that Kirk & Co. are too closely tied to the old Northern, liberal wing of the party represented by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. So they've formed their own group, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), to decide what to do.

During the past few days, the unofficial group, the DLC, got the jump on the party's DPC by flying to Tallahassee, Tampa, and Gainesville, Fla., to hear from the grass roots. ``We're going to talk to everybody who wants to talk,'' explained the DLC chairman, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Florida Gov. Bob Graham called the DLC's swing through this state ``the beginning of a historic and exciting effort to chart a new course for a great political party.'' The key to success, Governor Graham said, is to rebuild and restore Democrats ``as America's growth and opportunity party.''

Right away, however, the DLC ran into political flak as they flew around the state. In Tallahassee, a woman legislator chided the DLC for sending only men on this first fact-finding trip. In Gainesville, students at the University of Florida made the same criticism. Democratic liberals, in fact, have already nicknamed the group the ``white male caucus.''

DLC members, all of whom are elected officials, defend themselves by noting that there are blacks and women among them. But the group of white males who made this first trip also were trying to send Southern males a message: The party hasn't forgotten you.

Southern whites comprise the largest group of conservatives in the United States today. In line with that, DLC members such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, and Rep. Buddy MacKay of Florida spoke here of building a strong military, standing up to Soviet pressures in Central America, and getting the party back to the ``political mainstream.''

Even their jokes were aimed at Southerners who feel caught between the Democratic left and the Republican right. Said Senator Nunn: ``Those of us in the middle of the Democratic Party are caught . . . like the little boy who didn't know quite what to do because he got kicked out if the parochial school for cussing, and he got kicked out of the public school for praying.''

This must become ``a party of the future, not of memories,'' said Congressman MacKay. The party must be bold. ``We want to take risks.''

In that same spirit, Congressman Gephardt recalled that Franklin D. Roosevelt was ``an experimenter.'' Americans aren't ideologues, Gephardt said. They are pragmatists and problem-solvers. The party's future depends on offering new, problem-solving proposals.

All this comes against a backdrop of rapid Republican gains here -- gains that the GOP continues to build upon. Beginning June 1, Republicans are launching a drive to get 45,000 Florida Democrats to switch parties. Thousands of blue ``switch cards'' are being mailed to voters in the state. In only a minute or two, a Democrat, using one of these post cards, can change party registration. Republicans can already boast of some big-name switchers -- the mayor of Tampa, a congressman, a state senator, a state representative, and a former university president.

The Florida GOP's long-term goal: control of the legislature, the governor's office, and at least a couple of cabinet posts by the early 1990s. That would make it possible for the party to draw the lines when the state is redistricted for Congress after the 1990 census.

Is all lost for the Democrats? Is minority status at the end of this road?

Not necessarily. Republicans still are more than 1 million registered voters behind in Florida. President Reagan will be out of office by 1989, and he is the GOP's biggest asset here. Republicans also are having trouble getting strong candidates for important state races.

The future also depends upon how well Democrats can make their case, now that the party competition here is heating up. In an interview, Florida House Speaker James Harold Thompson put his party's case this way: ``The difference, in my opinion, between a conservative Democrat and a Republican is we [Democrats] care more about the people as individuals. We got that through our parents and grandparents because they survived the depression that the Democrats brought us out of.

``The Republicans would be willing in a situation like that to let the system work, to let free enterprise work; and my dad wouldn't have been able to go to the CCC camps [Civilian Conservation Corps] and work. And the WPA [Works Projects Administration] wouldn't have been available to my grandfather. That's the big difference.''

Second of two articles. The first ran May 22.

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