Four years ago, George Bush looked to Dixie and inhaled the sweet magnolia scent of victory. Heavy with conservative voters, the Solid South was the anchor for Bush's huge electoral majority. Campaign manager Lee Atwater, who worried about Bush's weakness in the Northeast and Far West, dubbed the region a "Southern firewall." But Atwater is dead now, and Bush's populist allure in the South seems to have faded, too.
Even the white, male Southerners who voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 1988 are peeling away. Take Mark Baxter. He has given Republicans his vote in each Presidential election since 1980. But this year, Baxter, a barber in the Atlanta suburb of Stockbridge, is ready to do something he couldn't have imagined a few years ago: vote Democratic.
With the economy crawling along, Baxter, 34, is furious at George Bush. He fumes over the President's 1990 flip-flop on taxes. And he's dismayed by the President's policy paralysis and finger-pointing at Congress. "Bush gets on a soapbox but never takes any action," complains Baxter. "He's lost touch with Middle America, the people who foot the bill for everything."
At Baxter's barber shop, Bush's rotten economy is Topic A. "So many people tell me that they're worried about losing their jobs," Baxter says, "and that worries me." Baxter has seen competitors go out of business, and he's struggling to make payments on a bare-bones medical insurance policy. It's enough to make even a dedicated Republican think again: "Maybe it will be good to get a Democrat this time."
`BIG HOLES.' Suddenly, the President is finding in the South the same tough slog that awaits him elsewhere. To the dismay of Republican strategists, Bill Clinton has managed to seize the lead in most every state of the Old Confederacy--and the border states, too (map). A recent Houston Post poll of likely Texas voters helps explain why. Most Southern voters agree with the President on such issues as a constitutional balanced-budget amendment and congressional term limits. But they're far closer to Clinton on the issues most important to them: the economy and health care. "If Bush forces view the South as a firewall, they have some big holes in it," crows Craig Smith, one of Clinton's national field directors.
Among the biggest breaches in the GOP's Southern edifice: prochoice Republican women and independent suburbanites. "George Bush has let me down to the point where he can't" make amends, says Darlene Murner, owner of Randall's Cafe in Heflin, Ala., and secretary of the Cleburne County GOP. Upset about Bush's abortion stance and convinced that he will say anything to win, Murner flirted with Ross Perot's independent candidacy. Now, she's impressed by some of Democrat Bill Clinton's economic proposals--and by running mate Al Gore.
Winning back the likes of Baxter and Murner is crucial to Bush's come-from-behind strategy. "If we begin to lose some states in the South, we're in deep trouble," says North Carolina GOP Chairman R. Jack Hawke, who concedes Clinton would carry his state if the election were to be held today.
CRYBABY. To get a sense of Bush's Southern discomfort, take a look at his first destination after the GOP convention. Rather than journey to California, Bush will head to Dixie to shore up his base. Bush's early-August foray into the region was star-crossed. A feisty campaign speech in Jacksonville, Fla., was overshadowed by Deputy Campaign Manager Mary Matalin's churlish blast at Clinton's personal life. When the smiling President waded into a Dalton (Ga.) crowd and hoisted a baby, the tyke burst into tears.
There were more cheers than tears four years ago, as Bush piled up landslides across the South by winning up to 80% of the white vote. But these days, his popularity ratings are as depressed as the local economies. From small-town shops to suburban malls, the President is being hurt by a ferocious, widespread backlash against incumbents.
After serving as willing soldiers of the Reagan Revolution, many white Southerners are contemplating a return to their Democratic roots. Four years ago, Dianne Smith, a credit manager at Shaw Industries, a Dalton (Ga.) carpetmaker, rejected Michael Dukakis as too liberal. Now, she's close to abandoning Bush. "He's trying to shift all the blame onto Congress, but if they do anything, he vetoes it," she says. Bush's convention-week pledge to rededicate himself to economic growth comes "a little bit late" for Smith's liking. "Everybody wants a change," she notes. "With two Southern boys running, I just can't see the South going Republican this year."
Although Bush could still patch it up, the unraveling of a Dixie coalition built over three decades by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan has stunned Southern political analysts. "It's almost beyond belief that Republicans could so quickly squander the advantage that they've had for so long," says University of South Carolina political scientist Earl Black.
Further complicating the Bush camp's comeback plans: Two sons of the new South make up the opposing ticket. Clinton and Gore just don't rile Southerners the way Yankees Dukakis and Walter Mondale did. "Clinton seems more down to earth, more sincere," says Tonya Haynes, a student at Gadsden (Ala.) State Community College. Adds Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist: "Clinton and Gore are precisely the kind of moderate Democrats who regularly win governors' races in the South."
As bleak as things now look below the Mason-Dixon line, there's still time for Bush to turn them around. At the convention, the GOP painted Clinton as a soft-on-crime liberal who flouts traditional values and aims to raise taxes. Bush partisans feel the attacks will turn the tide. "When people in the South start seeing what Clinton is really about, they are going to be turned off," predicts Florida GOP Chairman Van Poole.
Moreover, many white Southerners retain a fondness for Bush. And despite the poor economy, those voters are drawn to the GOP's patriotic appeals and the party's antitax, anti-Washington stance. "I sincerely believe he's trying," says Ron Harrison, general manager of Sunny King Ford in Anniston, Ala. "Mr. Bush has made some unpopular decisions, but he has the best interests of the country at heart."
HOOVERISMS. Bush also has a crucial base among Christian fundamentalists--though many prefer Vice-President Dan Quayle's more consistent devotion to social and fiscal conservatism. Bush's no-tax pledge was "a big mistake," says Charles McHargue, who with his wife, Becky, owns the Christian Supply Shoppe in Kannapolis, N.C. "I'm going to vote for Quayle. Other than that, I'm not voting for anybody."
But even many Bible Belt voters are more worried about the economy than social issues this year. "Abortion is one of the major considerations for me," says Julie Logan, a prolife college stuMAP BY ALBERTO MENA/BW
dent from Jacksonville, Ala. "But I won't base my decision solely on it. Our economy has gotten worse instead of better." Logan, who helped distribute Bush literature four years ago, is now sizing up Clinton. "I'm ready for change," she says.
So are other white Southerners once captivated by the Republicans' hard-line stance on race, crime, and foreign policy. Bush's Hooveresque admonitions to Americans to pull up their socks and weather the economic storm have revived the specter of the country-club GOP. "In the Bush Administration, Southerners have seen a reversion to the traditional policies they see as beneficial to upper-income people and big business," says Charles Elliott, a political scientist at East Texas State University.
With tough Texan James A. Baker III taking the helm of the Bush campaign, the President's backers hope that a Southern rebound will start soon--and signal the rebirth of Bush's reelection hopes. But as the Bushies survey the dismal poll numbers from Dixie, the only rebel yell they're hearing is "Help!"