Super Tuesday: a sound idea that didn't work. For Southern Democrats, `Super Flop'

Super Tuesday - or Super Flop? Conservative Democrats once viewed today's Southern primary as their big chance to steer the party toward the center. But it hardly seems to be working.

Favored in today's vote are two liberals, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and Jesse Jackson of Illinois. Claibourne Darden Jr., a respected Atlanta pollster, says it is ``S.O.S. - the same old stuff'' for Democrats.

``It's the standard Democratic act of political hari-kari,'' Mr. Darden says. ``Super Tuesday is an absolute failure.''

Super Tuesday was also designed to put the South on the map - politically. But some experts say it went too far. It is too big and too costly. Candidates haven't enough time to visit most of the region, or enough money to reach Southerners via television.

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says Super Tuesday has become a ``mini-national primary. You might say this particular Super Tuesday is too super, too much of a good thing.''

William Schneider, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, simply called it a ``super flop'' during a TV interview this weekend.

Today's political extravaganza was conceived by Southern moderates, such as former Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia. The primary extends across the South from Texas to Virginia, including every state of the old Confederacy except South Carolina.

Southern conservatives have been upset with the overpowering influence of Iowa and New Hampshire on the party's presidential process. They felt those two states pushed Democratic candidates toward left-wing policies, which hurt Democrats in November.

Super Tuesday was supposed to fix that.

It was also designed to attract moderate and conservative Democrats to run for the White House.

That didn't happen. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia flirted with a race, then backed away. Mr. Robb was mentioned, but he protested that he wasn't ready. The only Southerner to come forward was Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who votes as if from liberal Massachusetts.

Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, insists that Super Tuesday has been ``more positive than negative'' - in spite of the problems.

He says the importance of today's Southern vote encouraged candidates to ``nationalize their message.'' They took fewer positions in Iowa that will ``haunt them in the national election'' in November, he says.

Mr. From concedes Super Tuesday hasn't been perfect. He would favor dividing the South into two blocks, which would vote three weeks apart. That way ``candidates couldn't say goodbye to the South all at once.''

But the South was heard this year, he insists. He recalls that in 1984, Iowa forced several candidates to endorse the nuclear freeze, and ``that was something that hurt us all through the race.'' This time, ``as Gore went south, he created a debate on national security. That had everybody talking about national strength.''

Mr. Hess concurs - but only in part. ``Did the candidates moderate their views? The answer to that may be slightly. Not much. A little. Even Jesse Jackson is talking a little differently in the South than in the North. There seems to be a little difference there, but not much.''

Hess says the unhappiness over the Democratic race may reflect the candidates themselves - ``a drab, though qualified, group. ... If someone had taken off, [Darden and others] wouldn't be so critical.''

But Darden sticks to his guns. If Dukakis wins today, and becomes the nominee against George Bush in November, ``that will be no race at all in the South,'' he says. Democrats will ``go right back down that old path'' to defeat, he predicts.

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