The ``Southern superprimary'' was supposed to help Democratic conservatives in the 1988 presidential race. So why is the Rev. Jesse Jackson smiling so broadly? The Rev. Mr. Jackson, who showed surprising strength in 1984, is already making noises like a 1988 presidential candidate. Now some strategists say the Southern megaprimary, cooked up by Dixie Democrats, could play right into his hands.
Just this week, Virginia joined eight other Southern states that have decided to hold their primaries and caucuses for the presidential race during the week of March 6, 1988.
Their purpose: to give the South more clout in picking the Democratic presidential ticket and nudge the party toward the right.
But what about Mr. Jackson? A majority of the nation's blacks live in the South, and with their help, he could unravel Southern Democrats' plans.
Already, he is hard at work. Today, for example, the fiery preacher-politician plays host to hundreds of delegates here at the organizational meeting of his National Rainbow Coalition. There's little doubt what the convention is all about: to rally party blacks and liberals and set the stage for Jackson to run in 1988.
He hopes to set up Rainbow organizations in hundreds of cities across the country.
This time a Jackson race will be different, he says. He'll start early, raise plenty of money, and build a grass-roots organization. No more hand-to-mouth campaigning, as in 1984 when he picked up 18 percent of the Democratic primary vote nationwide.
Jackson says his Rainbow will give special attention to the South.
That plan runs smack into the strategy of Southern Democrats, who have argued that a Southern superprimary would be Dixie's answer to Iowa and New Hampshire -- two Northern states that have a disproportionate voice in picking the president every four years.
Southerners like former Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia and Gov. Mark White of Texas say their region is ignored. They point to 1984 when the ticket and the party leadership were dominated by Northerners and liberals. Not a Southerner in sight.
Southerners hope that in 1988, right after Iowa and New Hampshire, the entire South will vote in one explosive week. The regional primary would be so important that no longer could the area be taken for granted.
But Jackson may scramble those plans.
In 1984, Walter Mondale and the Rev. Mr. Jackson split the Southern black vote. Even so, Jackson came out ahead of the entire Democratic field in more than 30 congressional districts in the South -- places like Jacksonville, Fla.; Shreveport, La.; Baltimore; and Atlanta where there are heavy black populations.
This time, Mr. Jackson may have the black vote even more to himself. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a favorite of blacks, has stepped aside. Mr. Mondale says he won't run again.
Ed Rollins, the former political strategist for President Reagan, says that with solid black support, the Rev. Mr. Jackson could very well win several Southern states, especially if the white vote were split among a number of other contenders. Says Mr. Rollins:
``Jackson is unchallenged for his appeal to black voters in 1988. And I think he's going to do better than a lot of people think in these Southern states. Especially if you have four or five [other] candidates.''
Since there are no runoffs in the presidential primaries, Mr. Jackson could come out on top in a state with as little as 20 to 30 percent of the vote.
Furthermore, he has directed much of his effort this year to expanding his appeal into white, Hispanic, Asian, and other communities. And he is especially targeting voter groups with major problems.
Strategists doubt Mr. Jackson has a real chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But he might get enough delegates to be a broker with great sway over the eventual nominee.
Jackson chuckles at the thought.
``Now don't you all go making me the front-runner,'' he told reporters over breakfast this week. ``I'm the underdog!''