Southern voters put issues ahead of party in presidential race. Conservative from either party would win support, leaders say

David Halbrook, a catfish farmer from Belzoni, Miss., and a state representative, minces no words: ``We're about ready to take President Reagan's picture off the wall'' because of the federal deficit. ``You are talking about my children, and their children, paying for the good times we are having now.''

But Democrats looking for Southern votes next year will find little comfort from conservative ``boll weevil'' Democrats like Mr. Halbrook.

The Southern regional primary next March has put conservative Democrats, especially, in a strong bargaining position. Their leaders hope for a more conservative Democratic nominee, but they are more than willing to vote Republican before voting liberal.

Halbrook likes Sen. Albert Gore Jr., the young Democratic presidential aspirant from Tennessee. But he would rather vote for Republican Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas or White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr.

Other Democrats at the annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference this week in Little Rock, Ark., echo Halbrook's concern over President Reagan and federal deficits. Bob Etheridge, chairman of the Appropriations Committee in North Carolina's House of Representatives, says that Reagan budgets are borrowing prosperity from overseas against future generations in the United States. He also likes what he sees so far of Democratic Senator Gore and Republican Senator Dole.

Other issues much on the minds of the Southern legislators at the conference are better access to world markets for US cotton, grain, and soybeans, as well as textiles. The legislators - especially those near military bases - talk of the need for a strong defense. They speak of pro-family, traditional values, of rural economic development, and of better public education.

But the politicians are not always talking the same issues as Southern voters. In an extensive poll of the region by the Atlanta Constitution in March, the top concerns of Southerners were drunk driving, drug abuse, AIDS, education, and crime.

Presidential candidates are courting Southerners more energetically than in any election in recent memory.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri says he has visited every Southern state at least six times so far in his campaign, and some of them as many as 25 times. Gore claims to have spent more time campaigning in Southern states than all the other Democrats put together.

Are the candidates saying what the Southerners want to hear? They are at least beginning to, says William McInturff, a consultant to the Republican National Committee.

The Democrats, too, are steering their debate south, he says. Representative Gephardt's trade bill to force open foreign markets to US goods is one example. So is his call for an oil import fee, which speaks to the depressed oil economies of Texas and Louisiana.

Many Southern politicians treat the parade of candidates with a general skepticism. ``We'll get the tourist trade,'' notes Gentry Crowell, Tennessee's secretary of state. ``We may not get the answers.''

``They're all talking issues like agriculture,'' says Georgia State Rep. Henry Reaves, who comes from a rural south Georgia county. ``From what I've heard I don't have much faith in any of the candidates.''

Atlanta political journalist Bill Shipp says that without a dominant issue in the South, the Super Tuesday primaries will pivot on the character of the candidates.

Enter what the venerable Southern political analyst, V.O. Key, dubbed the ``friends and neighbor'' factor: In a straw poll this week of the delegates at the Southern Legislative Conference by the Arkansas Democrat newspaper, Gore of Tennessee received three times the votes of his nearest rival in either party. At least a measure of the enthusiasm for Gore is because he is a native son.

Alabama State Rep. Tom Butler (D) of Huntsville says that Southern politicians are looking for a Democrat with pro-family, traditional values - someone who is strong on defense, who shows compassion and a concern for education. If they find one, he says, they will help support him in their districts. ``You didn't see me out on the front lines for the Mondale ticket,'' he says.

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