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Clinton's Political Hopes Go South

With his popularity low and election ahead, president plays catch-up on native soil

HE may be Southern born and bred, but for President Clinton the area below the Mason-Dixon line has been particularly uncivil.

In 1992, he carried only four Southern states -- his weakest showing of any region in the country. Now, as he begins to prepare for 1996, he may find his native soil even more stony.

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Last November's Republican realignment -- which was most dramatic in the South -- coupled with his decline in personal popularity, will make it difficult for Clinton to incorporate any part of the region into his political base in '96.

''You can't say what's going to happen a year and a half from now, but it looks very bad for him,'' says Hastings Wyman Jr., publisher of Southern Political Report, a biweekly newsletter. ''He lost credibility in the South early in his administration, and I don't think he's ever regained it.''

The president's unenviable standing comes as he takes a prolonged swing through the region this week. Yesterday, he oversaw a regional economic summit in Atlanta, one of four to be held around the country.

Clinton sought feedback on his economic policies, but the venue also gave him a chance to increase his visibility and take some credit for the region's robust economy.

The president journeys to Florida today, where he will address the state Legislature and hold a fund-raiser, before heading on to Haiti. He will spend the weekend in Arkansas.

''These regional meetings he's having are a way of trying to reassert presidential leadership,'' says Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University here. ''The question is whether voters in the South are really paying any attention to it.''

Clinton carried only Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas in 1992. If he were to run today, some political experts say he'd probably win only his home state of Arkansas.

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The Republican revolution that swept through the South last November is one reason it will be more difficult for the president in 1996 to hold onto the Southern states he won in 1992. Even Tennessee, home of Vice President Al Gore, might be a long shot because it turned heavily Republican in the 1994 elections.

''Now that there are even more locally elected Republicans, that just strengthens the party from the bottom up,'' says Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, an Alexandria, Va.-based political consulting firm.

But Alan Secrest, president of the Democratic polling firm Cooper and Secrest Associates, says Clinton's problems in the South are not just ideological. ''I think the greater challenge stems from perceptions of him personally rather than a Republican trend,'' Mr. Secrest says.

Be it personal or partisan, Clinton will have a tough time winning another election if he doesn't carry at least some Southern states.

''He can't just cede the South and expect to make it up elsewhere'' because he is unpopular in the Mountain West, and Republicans are going to pick up some Midwestern states, too, Mr. Bolger says. Clinton may also have trouble carrying California again -- the nation's biggest state.

That's not to say Clinton doesn't have a chance in parts of Dixie. The '96 election is still 18 months away. Moreover, the field of Republican and possible independent candidates will help determine the outcome.

STILL, some political watchers believe the South will be a low priority for Clinton. ''I think [the Clinton team] is going to run a strategy where they deemphasize the South and essentially concentrate on a small number of large states and try to win a victory that way,'' Mr. Black says. ''I don't see the South as central in their reelection efforts at this time.''

In order to win more Southern votes, Clinton needs to expand his share of the white vote and persuade blacks to turn out in larger numbers, says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.

In 1992, newly drawn majority black districts mobilized blacks to head to the polls. But in 1994, fewer blacks voted. One reason for the lower turnout was that the districts achieved their goal of electing minority candidates and thus there was little impetus for many blacks to cast a ballot, Dr. Bullock says.

Another possible obstacle for Clinton in the South is the dwindling number of Democratic officeholders who can help cheer-lead for him.

''A lot of his stronger supporters got defeated in '94,'' Bullock says. ''Those who remain are going to be quite leery of appearing to be too close to Clinton. Those who are going to get close to him are going to be the African- American Democrats.''

But pollster Secrest says that while Clinton's prospects in the South look bleak, voters still respond favorably to Democrats with innovative platforms.

He points to Georgia Gov. Zell Miller who was one of the few Democrats to survive the Republican drubbing, though by a slim margin.

Miller initiated a two-strikes law and a lottery-funded scholarship program that enables students who earn a B average to attend college tuition-free. ''It is a more cynical climate, but Miller illustrates the fact that voters will respond to a Democrat despite a bitter partisan crosscurrent,'' Secrest says.

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