There's a slow-motion revolution under way in statehouses and county courthouses across the South.
Republicans are increasingly elbowing their way into state and local offices in a region where Democrats have had a near-total lock across the political landscape.
GOP candidates are doing it by appealing to conservative voters who have formed the backbone of the Democratic Party dating back to the Confederacy.
The change brings a growing resonance to the conservative Republican voice on such issues as affirmative action, crime, and the size of government. It is also making the South more polarized, as both parties lose their forces of moderation.
"The main realignment in the region is a shift of white conservatives away from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party across the South," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "Now the vast majority of [Southern] conservatives are Republicans or think of themselves as Republicans."
The trend dates to presidential elections in the 1950s, but it gained momentum in 1980 when many southern Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Ronald Reagan. But while these southern Democrats voted Republican for president, they typically stayed loyal to their party elsewhere on the ballot.
Eventually, however, that changed. Many conservative Democrats in the South jumped ship to the GOP, while others called themselves Democrats but began supporting Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates as well. Most felt Republicans better represented their interests on important issues. They're against affirmative action, for instance, and are typically strong advocates of morality-based issues, such as prayer in school. They want to limit the size of government, keep a strong national defense, and they take a tough stance on crime.
Over time, the trend broadened to include support for state legislative and local candidates.
Today, eight of the 11 governors of traditional southern states are Republicans. Republicans hold roughly 60 percent of Southern seats in Congress.
The trend is trickling down to the state and local level where it is now changing the composition of state legislatures from Virginia to Florida to Texas.
"In 1978, the Republicans had 17 percent of the seats [in state legislatures across the south], now they have 40 percent," says Hastings Wyman Jr., publisher of the Southern Political Report.
"Over time the Republican influence has really moved," he says. "Once Republicans started winning, they just won at all levels - and that is continuing."
Republicans control both houses of the Florida Legislature, the Senate in Texas and Virginia, and the House in North Carolina and South Carolina.
Republican inroads have come at a slower pace at the state legislative level, analysts say, because Southern conservatives have been more willing to support conservative Democratic incumbents in state government. But when those Democratic incumbents step down, they're frequently replaced by Republicans.
Political analysts say the Republicans will likely pick up a few seats in November elections, but dramatic shifts aren't anticipated at the congressional or statehouse levels. Nonetheless, there are at least three races that could highlight the GOP's growing political clout across the South.
If Jeb Bush, son of the former president, becomes governor in Florida and his party retains control of the Legislature in Tallahassee, it would mark the first time in modern history that a Southern state was led by a Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Jeb's older brother, is expected to win reelection and emerge as a possible presidential candidate, strengthening his party's influence.
If the GOP wins the close governor's race in Georgia, it would mark the first time this century that a Republican resided in the governor's mansion. Georgia primaries haven't been held yet, but an expected race between Republican Guy Millner and Democrat Roy Barnes is seen as too close to call.
Charles Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, says the race will offer a gauge on whether conservative white voters are continuing to drift toward the GOP.
If the trend has stabilized in Georgia and Mr. Barnes or any other Democrat wins 40 percent of the white vote, the Democratic lock on the governorship will remain firm, he says. That's because a Democrat can count on about 95 percent of Georgia's black vote, Mr. Bullock says.
Georgia isn't the only state with a close race for governor. In Alabama, incumbent Republican Fob James may be in trouble. He has invested much political capital in the prayer-in-school and Ten Commandments-in-court issues, rather than focusing on generating business growth. He faces the prospect of a nasty GOP primary that could leave the Democratic challenger in a position to win in November, analysts say.
On a regionwide basis, it's unclear to what extent the Republican gains will continue, analysts say. GOP strongholds now exist throughout the South in suburban districts populated by white voters. The Democrats are strong in urban and black rural districts.
Some analysts say future Republican gains will depend on how new election district lines are drawn after the 2000 census.
Many say the momentum is with the GOP. "I fully expect that over the next 10 or more years we will see state legislatures and local offices shift to where Republicans hold a majority," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
But, he says, Republicans will never dominate the political scene in the South the way the Democrats did in the past.
Thomas Eamon, a political scientist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., agrees. "The South is just playing catch-up, and it is becoming a two-party system now."
"The realignment of these conservatives is not enough to produce automatic victories for the Republicans," says Mr. Black. "They also have to appeal to moderates."