Rivals try to check Bush in the South

Winning delegates - not just votes - will be the urgent task of all four Republican candidates next week on Super Tuesday. As the primary season nears the midpoint, Pat Robertson and Robert Dole are struggling to prevent a runaway by George Bush. They worry that in the next few days, the vice-president could move quickly toward the 1,139 delegates needed for the GOP nomination.

Over 800 delegates will be up for grabs next Tuesday in primaries and caucuses. More than 600 of those will be chosen in the South and four border states, where Bush is strongest.

``It's strictly delegates I care about next Tuesday,'' says Rocky Pennington, one of Senator Dole's Southern coordinators.

Whoever carries the South on Tuesday will inevitably win the nomination, Mr. Robertson told a rally here Tuesday night.

Robertson and Dole hope to slow Bush by whittling away at his delegate totals in every state. But it won't be easy.

The biggest prizes on Super Tuesday will be Florida (82 delegates) and Texas (111 delegates). Both are Bush strongholds.

A Gallup poll released yesterday shows Bush with a wide lead in Florida, topping Dole 51 percent to 24 percent. Robertson drew only 9 percent, with 6 percent going to Jack Kemp.

In Texas, Bush leads by an even larger 59-to-20 percent margin over Dole, with Robertson at 12 percent. Mr. Kemp drew 4 percent.

Robertson's and Dole's efforts here mirror the guerrilla tactics they are using all over the South.

The Republican race in Florida, as elsewhere, will be run in two parts. First, each congressional district elects either three or four delegates, with the higher number going to districts that have a Republican congressman. With 19 districts, that makes a total of 57 delegates.

In addition, 25 Florida delegates will be elected statewide.

Under Florida Republican rules, delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever gets the most votes (even if less than a majority) wins all the delegates.

Thus, the winner in the First Congressional District gets its three delegates. The winner in the 10th District, which has a Republican congressman, gets its four delegates. The winner statewide gets 25 additional delegates.

Faced with Bush's large lead, Dole made a strategic decision. The Kansas senator is strongest on the west coast of Florida, where thousands of Midwesterners have retired in places like St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Sarasota, Naples, and Venice. Many of them know Dole well.

Dole is concentrating his efforts there, in hopes of winning the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 13th Congressional Districts. His secondary targets are the 5th and 11th Districts around Orlando and the Cape Canaveral area, and the Fort Lauderdale area.

Meanwhile, Robertson has vigorously lined up support in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Districts along the Georgia border, the ``Baptist belt.''

He's also scrambling for votes in the other parts of the state, with particular emphasis on the heavily Hispanic Miami area and the Palm Beach County area.

Jack Kemp, meanwhile, has hopes of picking up delegates in the counties along the Georgia border, and in areas with heavy college populations.

Mr. Pennington of the Dole campaign says that if these piecemeal tactics work in Florida and elsewhere, Bush will get only about 200 delegates in the Southern states out of a total of about 500. Another 150 would go to Dole, and 150 to Robertson.

But Pennington concedes: ``We're still behind.'' If things go badly next week, Dole could end up with ``zero'' delegates in Florida, he admits.

Although Robertson runs poorly in the polls here, analysts say that probably understates his strength, Indeed, several political strategists say they privately admire Robertson's efforts, especially in the northern tier of Florida.

At Tuesday night's rally here, 1,200 screaming Robertson partisans cheered his every word. Even if he loses in Florida, Robertson will have added thousands of new names to Republican voter rolls.

Much of Robertson's strategy focuses on traditionally Democratic counties, where there are fewer than 500 Republican voters. Turnout in Republican primaries is low in those counties, sometimes as little as 8 or 9 percent of registered voters.

For example, the entire 2nd District, comprised of 25 counties, had a turnout of only 8,300 Republicans in the last party primary.

In such areas, Robertson saw an easy target for his organizing skills. He spent more than a year signing up new voters, most of whom are expected to turn out on Super Tuesday.

Dole, meanwhile, has targeted working and retired Republicans who may be sympathetic to his views on a number of issues.

Pennington says Bush will probably win the votes of Republicans living in $250,000 condos in Palm Beach. But Dole could win the votes of Republicans living in mobile homes in Pasco County.

Ken Wright, Bush's state director, concedes nothing to his opponents, however.

Florida Republicans want a strong defense, oppose higher taxes, and like Ronald Reagan. Bush has plumped for maintaining a high level of military spending (especially popular with Cuban-Americans, whose vote he may carry by as much as 4 to 1). He has taken every opportunity to come out against higher taxes. And he has been unswervingly loyal to Mr. Reagan, even when it hurt.

All that plays well here.

Mr. Wright admits Robertson has done a good job organizing, but he insists Bush will carry the northern districts. As for Robertson's efforts in the Hispanic communities, it is ``too little, too late,'' says Wright.

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