Deep South `non-issues' hit Dukakis SOUTH
Atlanta — These are overcast days for Michael Dukakis in the Land of Cotton.
Grim reports rain down from every corner of the South. In Georgia, polls show George Bush 8 points ahead. In Arkansas, 6 points. In Florida, 20 points. In Alabama, 22 points. In North Carolina, 13 points. In Louisiana, 4 points.
``Right now, my guess is that the Bush campaign will carry all the Southern states,'' says political scientist Earl Black of the University of South Carolina.
Even where the race is closest, Dr. Black expects a huge media blitz in the final days to carry the GOP over the top.
It's a sharp contrast with three months ago, when Governor Dukakis triumphantly accepted the Democratic nomination in Atlanta.
With Texan Lloyd Bentsen at his side, there was talk of winning several Southern states. Reagan Republicanism would no longer rule in Dixie.
All that seems like ancient history today. Even in Texas, where Senator Bentsen has campaigned vigorously, Governor Dukakis has fallen behind.
Yet Mr. Dukakis refuses to give up. During the past few days, he stumped through Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. His staff is poised for a last-ditch, get-out-the-vote drive in several Southern and border states where the governor remains within striking distance.
``We may be underdogs, my friends, but we're going to fight like Georgia Bulldogs, and we're going to win this one,'' he told a cheering crowd of 3,000 at Hawkinsville, Ga., over the weekend.
Dukakis's problems in Dixie arise from several factors. Most important: a failure by the governor's Boston-based staff to understand the political dynamics of the Deep South.
Initial reaction to the governor here in the South was positive. But in August and September, the governor's political standing was devastated among white Southerners on gun control, the death penalty, the pledge of allegiance, and prison furloughs - visceral issues that grabbed the public's attention.
``The gun issue is how the Republicans broke Texas. They were telling Texans, `Dukakis is going to take your shotgun away from you,''' notes Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden.
Dukakis aides charge that things like gun control are not real issues. But Southern voters don't feel that way.
``Those non-issues are the issues,'' Mr. Darden says. ``They are the issues the average American understands completely.''
Professor Black agrees. ``The Republicans have used with great effectiveness issues that involve sacred symbols or profane symbols.
``Republicans knew how explosive those issues were and they used them with great effectiveness to define a Northeast governor with little cultural affinity with the South,'' he says.
Dukakis played into Republican hands, the experts say. Rather than striking back quickly when Bush raised the pledge issue, for example, he answered with complicated constitutional arguments that went right over voters' heads.
Experts say Dukakis also failed to understand a basic point of presidential politics. When a Northern Democrat like Dukakis runs for president, he must run as a conservative.
James David Barber, a political scientist at Duke University, marvels at the deftness of the Republican team in undermining Dukakis.
It is amazing, he says, how ``these richies of the right manage to recruit the workers at McDonald's'' to support the Republican cause.
But Merle Black, a specialist in Southern politics (and the brother of Earl Black), says there is nothing surprising about it. The rich businessman and the $3.35-an-hour cashier at McDonald's are uniting behind Bush for two reasons:
First, Republicans rally around conservative cultural symbols, like gun control and the death penalty, upon which white Southerners of all income levels can agree.
Second, Republicans promise: ``We will tax you less.'' Even if you have a small salary, that sounds good, Dr. Black says.
Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager, gets much of the credit for the vice-president's Southern strategy.
A South Carolinian, Mr. Atwater was able to combine elements of economic conservatism with cultural conservatism. Together, he melded a coalition of voters who once backed Richard Nixon with those who supported George Wallace.
In Dixie, that's a potent combination, and ``Lee Atwater knows exactly how to do that,'' says Merle Black, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While cultural issues are important, Earl Black emphasizes that Bush's promise not to raise taxes was critical. It is especially important among many Southerners who are enjoying new prosperity.
``Economic times are better than they have ever experienced,'' says Black. ``They give the GOP credit.''
``But Republicans also are seen as the party of lower taxes,'' he continues. ``A lot of people down here previously did not pay much in the way of taxes. Now they are being inflated into positions where they pay a lot of taxes, and they resent this.''
Pollster Darden blames Dukakis for failing to win over white Southerners.
``You've got to take your pocket vote [liberal Democrats] by default, and then go after Middle America. It's mandatory to adjust, but Dukakis failed to do that,'' Darden says.