Stateline Story

Experts See South As Bush Country

Home to multibillion dollar dot-coms, fluttering Confederate flags and the only state with a mobile-home governor's mansion -- Arkansas -- the South is on a roll when it comes to presidential politics.

Proof positive is that after Nov. 7, a son of the South will be moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the third consecutive time. In all likelihood, Republican George W. Bush from Texas will probably rake in more southern votes than Democrat Al Gore from Tennessee, political experts predict.

"White voters in the South in the last 20 years or so have become very heavily identified with the Republican Party," says Robert P. Steed, who teaches political science at The Citadel in Columbia, S.C. "It takes some big issues to sort of shake them loose from that, and right now I don't see the big issues that are going to do that .

Which is not to cast the South as a 13-state monolith. Gore will probably do well in his home state of Tennessee and in Arkansas, the home state of President Bill Clinton, according to Steed. Also, look for Gore to run neck-and-neck with Bush in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, Steed adds.

Two southern states elevated Democrats to the governor's mansion in 1998, but don't look for those states to back Gore. "Alabama and South Carolina both elected Democratic governors last time around, but those elections were idiosyncratic in that they were related to issues like the lottery and education," Steed explains."I'm not convinced two years later that that's translatable into Democratic support." Mississippi elected a Democratic governor in 1999, but analysts regard the Magnolia State also as a lock for Bush.

Here's a look at some southern states where voters will decide particularly interesting races or issues:

Florida

Here's a southern state where political observers will need a scorecard to identify the new lawmakers in Tallahassee after Nov. 7. That's because term limits will whisk roughly 60 state lawmakers out of the state capital.

In the 120-member House, about 50 term-limited politicians have to go, while in the 40-member Senate, the total is 11, St. Petersburg Times political editor Tim Nickens says.

"We had good ol' boys who served forever and ever and ever, and they're out," says Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Julie Hauserman. "We have a feeling that that will increase the role of lobbyists and legislative staffers. We have a big state and a lot of complicated issues, and these (new) people won't be up to speed.

"The key issue is whether the GOP keeps control," Hauserman adds. "We've had the first GOP legislature since reconstruction. (Gov. Jeb) Bush, as a result, has really been able to get his agenda pushed through.

One might think Florida would represent easy pickings for Bush, given that younger brother Jeb Bush is the Republican governor. But that's not the case.

"Right now, you've got to put Florida up for grabs, I think," Hauserman says. "You would still expect (George) Bush to pull it off in a close election, though. The Peach State is home to one of the South's most fascinating congressional races, in the view of political scientist Keith Gaddie, an expert on Southern politics. It's playing out in District 2, a majority white district, and involves two African-American candidates -- incumbent Democrat Sanford Bishop and Republican Dylan Glenn.

"Glenn lost the GOP nomination last time, has worked for (president) George Bush and is buddies with Colin Powell," Gaddie says. On the other hand, "aside from (Republican Oklahoman) J.C. Watts, Bishop is probably the most conservative black in Congress right now.

Glenn, 31, lost in the 1998 District 2 primary despite endorsements from Powell and Newt Gingrich.

The Bishop/Glenn battle has drawn tremendous out-of-state interest. Citing Washington think tank Public Disclosure, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that nearly two-thirds, or $186,000, of Glenn's campaign finances are from outside Georgia. Bishop's out-of-state backing totaled 24 percent of his cash, or $46,575.

A state where activists want Confederate emblems removed from the state flag, Georgia also hosts a U.S. Senate race where seven candidates are trying to succeed the late Paul Coverdell, a conservative Republican who died of a brain hemorrhage in July. Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes wasted little time appointing former Democratic Gov.Zell Miller to fill Coverdell's seat on an interim basis.

Miller, a popular politician who served two terms as Georgia's governor, is viewed as the front-runner in a special Nov. 7 election to fill the remaining four years of Coverdell's term.

Coverdell's widow is urging voters to support former Republican U.S. senator Mack Mattingly. He launched an unsuccessful re-election bid in 1986.

"I would prefer a conservative Republican filling my husband's seat," Nancy Coverdell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . "It seems to me Mack Mattingly is closer in philosophy to Paul than Zell Miller could ever be."

North Carolina

A state with a good deal riding on the outcome of local elections is North Carolina. Longtime Democratic Gov. James Hunt is stepping down, leaving Republican former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and Democratic former Attorney General Mike Easley to scrap for his old post. political reporter Anna Griffin says.

"North Carolina has historically been dominated by Democrats," Griffin notes. "This is really the first time that Republicans stand a good shot of winning seats. Whoever controls the legislature controls redistricting, and conceivably the political picture for the next 10 years."

"Most of the issues playing out in North Carolina are the same ones playing out on the national level -- health care, HMO reform, prescription drugs," Raleigh News & Observer political columnist Rob Christensen says.

According to a poll done in mid-September, Easley has a 48 percent to 37 percent lead over Vinroot in the race for the governor's mansion. Conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, the poll also shows George W. Bush with 47 percent to 42 percent statewide lead over Al Gore, the Raleigh News & Observer reports.

Before leaving the polls on Nov. 7, North Carolinians will also have an opportunity to vote on a massive $3.1 billion bond referendum that would bring capital improvements to state universities and community colleges. Texas No mystery here regarding whether Bush or Gore gets the nod in the presidential race. The Lone Star State is a rock-solid bastion of Republicanism, notes Don Mason, political editor for the Houston Chronicle .

"The presidential race is decided here pretty much," Mason says. "Republicans so dominate state and local elections that there's not even very much interest in Democratic and Republican races on the state level."

Except in the Texas Senate, where Republicans have a 16 to 15 edge over the Democrats. So the outcome of a District 3 race between GOP candidate Todd Staples and Democrat David Fisher is being closely monitored, Mason observes.

Returning to presidential politics, if Bush defeats Gore, Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Rick Perry finishes out Bush's term as governor, which ends in 2002.

Virginia

The Dominion State's most closely watched election is a free-for-all between two former governors vying for a U.S. Senate seat currently held by one of the combatants, Democrat Charles Robb, currently has the position. He's trying to fend off Republican George Allen's bid to wrest it away.

"There are a number of issues involved, but the big ones are taxes and education," Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Jeff Schapiro says. "Robb has a strong record in education, while Allen has a somewhat mixed record."

Moving to the presidential contest, Virginians are concerned about health care, prescription drugs and Medicare, says Norfolk Virginia-Pilot reporter Warren Fisk. "Another debate brewing concerns the availability of transportation funds -- money from the federal or state government -- to relive congestion.

"This is especially true for Northern Virginia," Fisk says.

Kentucky

In the presidential election, Kentucky is a swing state that will probably fall to Bush because of Gore's anti-tobacco stance, political experts predict.

With Gore at the forefront of Clinton administration campaigns to crack down on teen smoking and punish tobacco companies, farmers in tobacco-rich Kentucky angrily blame Gore for a national tobacco settlement sending billions of dollars to states. Rightly or wrongly, Gore also is blamed for subsequent cuts in federal tobacco allotments.

South Carolina

Voters in this state will take a crack at a lottery ballot initiative on Nov. 7. It bears mentioning that South Carolina booted video poker machines out of the state earlier this year.

"My guess at this point is that South Carolina will probably not opt for the lottery," says The Citadel's Robert Steed. "It's sort of a morality issue: `Should the government be in the business of gambling?' Anti-lottery forces probably have the upper hand."

Proponents claim a lottery will generate $90 million for education in its first year of existence: Detractors have labeled lotteries the `crack cocaine of public finance.'

As far as the sprint for the White House, Bush's troops have got to love what they're hearing from the Palmetto State. A recent poll showed him handily trouncing Gore by 20 points.

In the Legislature, Democrats have crept to within four seats of capturing the House, while they hold a two-seat margin in the Senate. Voters on either side of the Confederate flag issue will likely remember which lawmakers helped remove the banner from the Capitol dome in Columbia, and which ones fought to keep it.