Alabama GOP makes inroads as gubernatorial race gets nasty

When it comes to political cat fights, Alabamians have never been skittish. But this year's snarling, name-calling, scandal-ridden, legally dubious, bare-knuckle tangle to succeed the legendary Gov. George Wallace has turned so nasty that the outcome:

May still be unsettled by November 4, forcing a delay in the election and possibly an interim governor.

Could reelect United States Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) as his opponent tries to duck voter anger at Democrats.

Might accomplish something unthinkable here for the past 112 years: A Republican -- a relatively unknown county administrator and former Amway salesman named Guy Hunt -- could, conceivably, become governor.

No group is more surprised than Alabama Republicans. Last summer, when Ronald Reagan made a stumping stop in the state, Mr. Hunt was not even invited onstage. This fall, he was before the cameras and crowds, clasping the President's upraised hand.

Another Republican, Senator Denton, was running nearly even against Democratic Rep. Richard Shelby in the polls early this summer. But ever since, Mr. Shelby has lain so low to avoid the angry anti-Democratic flak that now Denton is solidly in the lead, changing the arithmetic of the crucial battle between the parties for control of the US Senate.

And Alabama's fire-eating Democrats still can't be certain they have a nominee to succeed Mr. Wallace in the governorship. The question arises whether the nomination will even be settled by election day, Nov. 4.

What happened? In the Democratic gubernatorial runoff last June, Attorney General Charlie Graddick won by a few thousand votes over Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley.

Mr. Baxley charged that the more conservative Mr. Graddick won by encouraging people who voted Republican in the primary to, illegally, vote in the Democratic runoff. A federal court agreed, based on survey data, and ordered the Democratic Party to hold another runoff or award Baxley the nomination.

Party officials gave Baxley the crown. Voter outrage spread like kudzu vines. Graddick countered with a write-in campaign and a stream of strong language directed at his party chiefs.

Now, after 15 court rulings, the latest upholding Baxley and the Democratic officials, the steaming Graddick is appealing to the US Supreme Court.

Baxley, Graddick, and Hunt are roughly even in the polls. More significantly, polls are showing that if Graddick throws in the towel, most of his support will go to Hunt, the Republican.

As for the Alabama voters, they have a long history of dislike for politics anyway. Now talk is common of votes stolen by the Democratic executive committee. Bumper stickers read ``I'm MAD too, Charlie.''

The state GOP, trying since the Goldwater campaign of 1964 to make inroads at the state and local levels, is running radio ads denouncing the deceit and treachery of the Democrats. ``We don't have to endure this shameful episode. We can send a message,'' the announcer intones, invoking a slogan of the venerable Wallace himself. But the message? ``Vote Republican.'' Hunt and Denton are not even mentioned.

In rural, western Alabama, former county judge Ralph Banks leans back and echoes what many are saying these days: ``I'm voting against Bill Baxley. I'm not a Democrat anymore,'' he explains. ``I'm retired, and I'm not running for any more public offices, so I can vote for anyone I want.''

But like many Alabamians, Mr. Banks is not ready to call himself a Republican either.

``Hunt is a substitute for none-of-the-above,'' says Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University. ``If none-of-the-above were on the ballot, none-of-the-above would win.''

This year, William Barnard, history chairman at the University of Alabama, saw ``the desire, particularly among urban and younger voters, to break with the past in Alabama politics, to get out from under the shadow of George Wallace.''

Their candidate this year was Graddick. Although Baxley was the fresh, New South face in the 1970s, says Dr. Barnard, this year he represents the populist Wallace legacy, although, like the recent Wallace, he is a liberal on race and wins black support. And Graddick is seen by many voters as the candidate of change.

The desire to ``send a message to the rest of the nation that we are different, ready to join the New South,'' explains Barnard, has been frustrated this summer.

The frustration has meant excitement in the Republican Party. But it is still not clear, says Barnard, whether Hunt can take the protest votes that favor him now and convert them into positive votes in November. A probate judge (county administrator) in northern Alabama in recent years, Hunt has great field position, but remains an obscure candidate in a race the GOP had written off entirely until late this summer.

Should he win, says Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham Southern University, ``It will no longer be taken for granted that the governor of Alabama has to be a Democrat.''

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