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Southern voters fall in behind a GOP that's on the march. Republican ranks are growing, but their makeup is diverse

In the suburban, tract-mansion, New South prosperity of southeast Charlotte, N.C., says Jim Carter, a local attorney, ``It's not `affluent' to be a Democrat.'' ``If you want to join country clubs and play golf, then you want to be a Republican,'' says Mr. Carter, a Democrat claiming no such aspirations.

Charlotte is a snapshot of what much of the South wants to be. It is one of the economic hot spots of the Sunbelt, a regional financial center, and - no coincidence - a bastion of New South Republicanism.

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It is a Republicanism of several stripes, sometimes clashing.

In national Republican politics, the South remains a rightward, traditionalist force - and a vast, steady growth market.

In Charlotte, the same rightward pull is felt in sometimes fractious tension between business-minded and moral-issue conservatism.

For all his excesses, Republicans here sometimes explain, firebrand Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is a useful counterweight to extreme Senate liberals.

If only he could be from somewhere other than North Carolina. ``It's a bad image,'' says Sam Smith, a Republican and president of a computer software firm.

In business-minded Charlotte, Republicans are protective of their progressive side. Says Mr. Smith: ``We try not to be portrayed as racist, narrow-minded on religious matters, as tied to the South that the media portrays.''

Democrats still hold a 5-to-3 advantage in party identification in the South.

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But Republican ranks are swelling, sometimes pushing the party in more than one direction. Newcomers from points north, most observers agree, have had a tempering effect on Southern Republicanism. Meanwhile, occasional infusions of hard-line conservatives continue to strain the GOP's seams.

The latest such infusion has come in recent months from the presidential candidacy of Pat Robertson.

The numbers of new Robertson Republicans do not appear to be massive, but their disciplined, tightly organized activism has made them widely competitive for party control. Party chairmen in counties across the South report major, Robertson-led expansions.

In Alabama in 1980, the last contested Republican presidential primary, GOP turnout was about 225,000.

If the 70,000 Alabama signers of petitions urging Robertson to run are any indication of his potential voters, his impact will be ``not insignificant,'' political scientist Harold Stanley notes with marked understatement.

Perhaps the most significant source of new Republicans in the South is upward mobility. In affluent, youngish, fast-growing southeast Charlotte, Republicans predominate among both native Southerners and newcomers to the region.

Young Democrats during the Reagan years, says Walter Shapiro, a marketing consultant and a southeast Charlotte Democrat, ``felt socially uncomfortable and almost like poor cousins among their affluent Republican friends. ``If you want to be categorized as a yuppie,'' he adds, ``then you've got to get into the right party.''

Similar peer pressure has taken hold in the more prosperous suburbs across the region, even in the Deep South.

Southern politics once drew its daily sustenance from ``yellow dog'' Democrats, so anti-Republican they would vote for a yellow dog if he were a Democrat. Now, in southeast Charlotte, Democrats complain that voters mark a straight Republican ballot regardless of candidates or issues.

In Brandon, Miss., near Jackson, Rankin County GOP chairman Jack Williams recalls that 15 years ago, when he became a Republican, ``you could have held a county convention in a phone booth.''

Now, he says, ``being Republican is part of climbing up the ladder.'' He also notes, however, that most of the county's Republican votes are among the corporate professionals.

Outside Republican suburbs, many of the conservative Southerners that vote Republican in general elections still vote in Democratic primaries so they can have an impact on local races, where Republicans still offer slim pickings.

That is slowly, fitfully, changing.

In 1986, Democrats gained 178 seats nationwide in state legislatures, but in the South, Republicans picked up 23 seats. In North Carolina, where the GOP has sunk deeper roots than in much of the South, Republicans now control the county commissions in 31 of 100 counties.

In states with party registration, the GOP has been closing the huge gap with the Democrats year by year. District by district, state by state, Republican tickets are offering up more talented, viable candidates. The GOP lost five Senate seats in 1986, but it gained three governorships.

There remain some deep obstacles to Republican progress in the South. Even the most conservative whites grew up viewing Republicans as business chieftains who cared little for ordinary people. This view rises and falls, to some degree, with economic hardship.

For older Southerners, the Democratic Party is linked to heritage and identity. One conservative tobacco farmer in east Carolina, a Helms supporter, might be tempted to become Republican, he says, ``but I think back on my Daddy and all the old days, and I would have to have a very good reason to switch.''

The Republican Party has dominated the mountains of east Tennessee, western North Carolina, and a few counties in adjacent states since the Civil War. But elsewhere in the South, there were only a token number of ``post-office Republicans,'' who joined the party to get federal patronage jobs.

Many Southern voters first recall voting Republican for Dwight Eisenhower. But the first cadre of modern GOP activists in the South formed around Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In North Carolina in the 1970s, Senator Helms and his Congressional Club were the Republican Party for practical purposes in most areas. He brought moral-issue, Dixiecrat-type voters into the party.

It was Ronald Reagan's campaigns that unified North Carolina Republicans and sped forward the shift of Southern conservatives across the region to the Republican Party, especially in the Deep South.

These days, one party leader here says, local Republicans who previously thought of themselves as moderate have been warned away from the ``M-word.'' ``We all call ourselves conservatives,'' she says, to help keep the peace between moderates and the social-issues conservatives.

Now come the Robertson troops. Like the Helms activists before them, they are driven by social-issue concerns that try the patience of moderates.

They don't come from the traditional Republican neighborhoods,'' says political consultant David Benford, and what role they will play after Robertson's campaign is not clear.

Second of four articles. Tomorrow: How Democrats can win in the South.

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