Will The Democrats' New Tune Play In Dixie?

Don Beyer is running for governor of Virginia on a platform of tax cuts, small-business incentives, stiffer standards for teachers, family values, and tough talk on crime. Just what you'd expect of a Southern Republican candidate--except that Beyer is a Democrat.

Beyer, a successful businessman and two-term lieutenant governor, is test-marketing a formula he hopes will bring him victory on Nov. 4 and blaze a trail for a Democratic resurgence across the South in 1998. After two decades of crushing defeats for Dems in Dixie, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Governors Assn., and a group of Southern state party chairs are trying to develop a new message that resonates with Southern whites. "Our coalition cannot continue to be 90% of the black vote and 20% of the white vote," says Vermont Governor and DGA Chair Howard Dean. "Democratic candidates have to talk about their faith and values." Adds Alabama Democratic chief Joe Turnham: "The party's image has gotten so poor, we need to reinvent the corporation down here."

PRO-KID PLAN. To do that, a "Southern project" is scouring for themes especially appealing to white Christians. Polls show that this group overwhelmingly thinks the Democrats are dominated by secular liberals. New issues include backing the right of government employees to display religious objects at work and endorsing legislation to punish countries that persecute Christians. Another theme: promoting a pro-child agenda that calls for hefty fines for companies that pollute or sell smut or cigarettes to kids.

At the same time, Democrats hope to depict Southern Republicans as captives of religious zealots and profit-crazed corporations. To prove that the GOP has drifted far from the mainstream, the Dems plan to link GOP candidates to right-wing extremists. And by the 1998 elections, the party hopes to produce its own voter guides to counter the slick Christian Coalition brochures that painted Democrats as enemies of the devout in '94 and '96. "We're tired of being viewed as Satans, and we're going to fight back," vows Virginia Democratic Chair Sue Wrenn.

BIZ ANGLE. Indeed, Beyer, a Northern Virginia Volvo dealer locked in a tight race, is trying to make an issue of $100,000 in campaign contributions his GOP opponent, former state Attorney General Jim Gilmore, got from Virginia Beach-based religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Beyer also attacks Gilmore as being out of touch with the average Virginian. Crisscrossing the state in a motor home emblazoned with the slogan "Families for the Future," Beyer declares: "I'm a businessman running against a career government lawyer." Beyer's rhetoric may play well with white Christians, but it cost him the support of former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia's leading African American politician.

Still, a Beyer win could launch Democrats on a long road back from the setbacks that have cost them control of Congress and nearly two-thirds of the governors' mansions. Since 1987, the number of Democratic governors in the 13 Southern states has slipped from 6 to 4. Democratic House members have plummeted from 66% to 40%. And the party's Dixie Senate seats have dwindled from 18 out of 26 to just 8. Without making gains in the South, the Democrats have little chance of retaking Congress in 1998.

Republicans scoff at the notion that a few family-friendly platitudes will resurrect Southern Democrats, but they agree that their rivals have little choice. "You cannot toe the national Democrat line and win in the South," says Georgia GOP pollster Whit Ayres. Beyer already knows that. And plenty of defeat-weary Democrats throughout Dixie are coming to the same conclusion.

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