Racing for the South

MARCI McDONALD February 29 1988

Racing for the South

MARCI McDONALD February 29 1988

Racing for the South


On curved art deco terrace of Miami Beach’s Breakwater Hotel, an evening sea breeze was fanning the patriotic bunting strung from the doorway. Inside the lobby, an overflow crowd of 400 CubanAmericans had gathered to shout support for their new champion, former television evangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson. Women in black bouffant hairdos and ruffles, with cinder crosses from Ash Wednesday mass still fresh on their foreheads, brandished “Americans for Robertson” signs. And weathered exiles from Havana who spoke only a few halting words of English chanted, “Go Pat, go.” A month earlier polls indicated that a majority of Miami’s Hispanics—who make up a vocal 43 per cent of the local Dade County population—supported Vice-President George Bush in this year’s Republican presidential race. And only the day before, Bush had scored a decisive win in the New Hampshire primary. But the Cubans at Robertson’s rally seemed unimpressed. Said Rene Garcia, a 60-year-old Cuban air cargo pilot: “New Hampshire means nothing down here. Why should we give

Bush something if he has done nothing for us?”

Garcia had switched allegiance from Bush to Robertson at a Tampa hotelroom meeting in January, when Robertson gave Cuban-American leaders the

assurances that they had sought unsuccessfully from Bush and President Ronald Reagan for eight years. At that meeting, the former TV preacher declared his support for the goal that has clearly obsessed them since the failure

of the Bay of Pigs invasion 27 years ago: another assault by a Cuban exile army on the beaches of their former homeland. Said Garcia, a Bay of Pigs veteran himself: “He spoke loud and clear. He said, ‘You have the right to fight for your country—just like they do in Angola and Afghanistan and Nicaragua.’ ” Added the Breakwater’s proprietor, Gerry Sanchez: “Why are we endorsing Pat? Because it will give a green light to our freedom fighters.”

Indeed, the hotel rally illustrated how the political geography and rhetoric of the presidential race had shifted overnight last week. As candidates and their staff scrambled aboard chartered jets in the snowy dawn after the New Hampshire vote—heading south for the 20state March 8 primaries known as Super Tuesday—the triumphs and defeats of the night before suddenly appeared in a new light. In the contest for the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis found election experts downplaying his sweeping 16-point victory over Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt as a regional vote unlikely to help him in the South.

On the Republican side, analysts said that Robertson’s last-place finish among the five-man field would not harm his standing in the 14 southern and border states of the Super Tuesday primary where his so-called invisible army of evangelical Christians is concentrated. Indeed, Robertson declared that he was “throwing down the gauntlet” to his rivals Bush and Senator Robert Dole, challenging them to be in the bellwether South Carolina primary March 5, three days before Super Tuesday. Said Robertson: “When they come down to the South they’re playing in my backyard.”

In fact, nothing better demonstrated how rapidly the campaign had taken on a new set of considerations than what one observer termed Robertson’s “Cuban missile crisis.” Analysts had blamed his poor New Hampshire showing in part on his startling claim during a televised debate that the Soviets had put SS-4 and SS-5 nuclear missiles in

Cuba. Both the White House and the Pentagon denied his assertion. And Robertson’s rivals had privately chortled as he attempted to qualify his explosive allegation.

But the day after the vote Robertson seemed to be having the last laugh. National polls by the Atlanta-based Cable News Network showed that 85 per cent of respondents believed that he was right. Said Robertson last week: “The statement people say may have hurt me in New Hampshire is getting a wonder-

ful response in Florida and Texas.” Other candidates swiftly re-tailored their images for a region where the drawls are soft but the talk is often hard-line and hawkish. On the day after his New Hampshire victory Dukakis flew to Georgia and Florida where he cloaked his northeastern liberal image in tough rhetoric about the need for a strong defence. The normally mild governor snapped at a reporter in Atlanta who suggested that Tennessee Senator Albert Gore had the toughest defence policy of all the Democratic contenders. “I don’t think he’s the toughest,” said Dukakis. “I don’t yield to Al Gore on toughness in any way, face or manner.”

To many observers, the candidates’ increasingly personal attacks are a taste of worse to come. After months of folksy campaigning in smallscale Iowa -and New Hampshire — where meeting locals in coffee shops and living rooms still draws votes—the contenders were facing the task of getting their messages over a vast geographical area in only three weeks. To do that effectively, they were heavily dependent on expensive television campaigns. Bush, for one, has already spent $40,000 to place commercials with one West Palm Beach station alone.

But such expenditures exceeded the financial resources of many other candidates of both parties. Both Gephardt and the third-place Democrat, Illinois

Senator Paul Simon, were in debt after the Iowa caucuses and borrowed more money for TV time in New Hampshire. And although Gephardt’s second-place finish last week quickly brought him a new infusion of funds, that was only enough to repay the $250,000 he already owed.

Indeed, Simon initially declared that he would be forced to give up his campaign unless he could raise more money and win either of this week’s electoral tests: caucuses in Minnesota or a primary in South Dakota. “I am not fooling myself about the momentum you need,” said Simon. “I cannot continue to run a strong second or third. I have to win someplace.” His staff has agreed to forgo salaries, and Simon skipped a debate against his rivals in Dallas to campaign in Minnesota. But political strategists agreed that Simon’s doleful announcement was not likely to help his fund-raising. And a day later he withdrew his self-made ultimatum.

Even Dukakis—who emerged from New Hampshire with $4 million left in the bank—could only afford to buy substantial amounts of TV time in either Texas or Florida. He chose Florida, with its large population of retired northerners, where he is currently beating South Carolina’s Jesse Jackson in the polls. Said Dukakis’s Florida director, Steven Rosenfeld: “Florida is the place where, come hell or high water, we intend to win.” And Democratic media consultant Robert Squier predicted that impoverished candidates would indulge in more heated attacks on their rivals to win unpaid time on nightly TV newscasts. Said Squier: “I would estimate a very bloody fight Super Tuesday.”

One sign of the growing acrimony emerged during a debate last Thursday in Dallas when rivals turned on Gep-

hardt, the Texas front-runner who had a 12-point lead on Jackson according to a Dallas Morning News poll two weeks ago. Gephardt’s protectionist trade platform particularly appeals to threatened textile workers in the Carolinas. And in Louisiana and Texas—where plummeting oil prices have decimated once-thriving economies—his calls for a tax on imported oil (including Canada’s) strike a responsive note. Indeed, said Squier: “It would be hard to name a state in the South where Gephardt’s populist message would not play.”

Dukakis, in turn, may suffer in Texas from his opposition to an oil import fee. But he argues that the energy-strapped

New England states should buy surplus Texan natural gas as a way of “bringing the country together.” Said Dukakis: “I don’t mind buying hydropower from Quebec, but doesn’t it make sense to reach out to the southwest where they have all this natural gas they want to sell and are going through tough times?”

During last week’s debate the attack on Gephardt was led by Gore, who is competing for the same conservative white southern Democratic constituency. When Gephardt charged that Gore’s defence positions had been “sounding more like AÍ Haig than Al Gore,” Gore shot back, “That remark sounds more

like Richard Nixon than Richard Gephardt.” There appeared to be a personal dimension to the hostility between the Gore and Gephardt camps. In New Hampshire, Gephardt’s campaign manager, William Carrick, had told a reporter that he himself had a “blood-lust” hatred of Gore.

Among the Republicans, the invective also heated up. Dole declined to take his New Hampshire defeat gracefully. In a television interview, he angrily warned Bush to “stop lying about my record.” And his campaign manager, former labor secretary William Brock from Tennessee, was equally vituperative about Bush’s anti-Dole TV

commercials. Said Brock: “We’re sick to the gills of this kind of cheap tactic.” But Bush strategist Lee Atwater credited the negative commercials and anti-Dole speeches with swinging the New Hampshire vote in Bush’s favor. And he promised a new series of similar TV spots this week.

Still, in each party there was one candidate who appeared to be the beneficiary of an unspoken nonaggression pact among his rivals—Jackson in the Democrats and Robertson in the Republicans. Both native southerners with large and loyal constituencies— and both controversial outsiders in the political process—“the two rever-

ends,” as one headline-writer called them, could complicate their parties’ national fortunes by winning a majority of delegates on Super Tuesday. In fact, Jackson supporters were clearly gleeful that in New Hampshire he had won eight per cent of the vote in a state with a black population of less than one per cent. Said his issues adviser, Robert Borosage: “This shows that there is a base beyond race that he can reach.”

As the candidates’ strategists last week planned their marches on the South, Bush’s advisers claimed that his campaign had the fewest adjustments to make. Polls in New Hampshire showed that nearly half of the 78 per cent of the Republicans there who approved of Reagan had given their votes to Bush. Said Chicago pollster Gerald Strom: “If Bush could repeat his ability to capitalize on the Reagan connection, then he should do well in the South.” Other candidates had to rely on more traditional methods to win the southern voters’ hearts. Gephardt took to the stump with Florida’s 87-year-old Representative Claude Pepper—the congressional champion of so-called grey power—in an effort to gain the support of elderly retirees. Two other hopefuls targeted the country-music crowd: Robertson announced bus tours with singer Ricky Skaggs, while Gore’s road show featured songs and testimonials from Johnny Cash.

But Dukakis’s strategy seemed to be the most unusual of all. For months he has spent millions of dollars and employed 60 paid staffers on only four southern states: Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. He was gambling that those states’ urban and suburban populations would have more in common with New Hampshire voters than with the stereotypes of the old South. In fact, Dukakis argued that his rivals were making a mistake in devising separate strategies aimed at voters south of the Mason-Dixon line. “There is a mythology about the South,” he said, “as if it were some kind of foreign country. The people in Arkansas and Kentucky aren’t voting for a zip code. They are voting for a president.”

But Super Tuesday—originally devised by southern Democrats who wanted more say in choosing a presidential candidate—may produce a result that is opposite to the one they intended. In fact, many strategists predict that no clear winner may emerge from the mega-primary. Said former Democratic party chairman John White: “There are no knockout punchers in this crowd.”