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Southern Democrats Coaxed to GOP Dance

IN Mississippi, the state Republican chairman routinely goes knocking on the doors of Democratic officeholders to try to get them to switch parties.

In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush (R) sets aside time every week to call Democratic officeholders and woo them to his party.

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In Georgia, at least one newly converted Republican officeholder mans the phones himself, trying to coax Democratic colleagues to join the GOP fold.

Across the South, the GOP has gotten aggressive. It is stepping up efforts to lure Democrats into Republican ranks.

While such efforts are a staple of American politics, the wooing is reaching new levels in the South as Republicans try to consolidate gains made in the 1994 elections.

They have had some success. Most notably has been the conversion of two southern Democratic congressmen - Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia.

But the greatest numbers of converts have been at the local and state levels, where some Democrats have changed parties overnight.

"We see the Democratic base beginning to deteriorate here in Louisiana," says Chris Furlow, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana. This year three state legislators and a handful of local officials have switched, and Mr. Furlow predicts several more will do so in 1995.

The 1994 congressional elections, which turned the once Dixiecrat South into the GOP's emerging new base, has emboldened Republicans to step up their political proselytizing.

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Louisiana Republicans, for instance, have moved their presidential caucus ahead of Iowa's. It is now the first in the nation. They hope an influx of high-profile candidates will get state politicians "fired up about GOP ideals and make them switch parties," Furlow says.

The state Republican Party also recently gave its chairman the authority to grant automatic endorsements to Democratic legislators who change parties.

The belief is that such a move will sweeten the deal for those who've "been straddling the fence," Furlow says, because they will not have to worry about the party endorsing someone else after they've changed status.

Next door in Mississippi, Republican Party Chairman Billy Powell's strategy is to make personal visits to prospective Democrats. "We target the district, we find out the voting patterns of the people in there, and we look at the voting pattern of the person holding the office," Mr. Powell says. "If it's a Republican area and it's a conservative Democrat who's voting Republican, then we try to convince him that he's just gotten himself misclassified."

Alice Skelton, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, agrees that Republican recruiting efforts have grown more aggressive. But she believes their bragging of more turnover is exaggerated.

"They like to say, 'If we can't win the seat we can turn them.' I don't believe that's going to happen," Ms. Skelton says.

But she adds that the state party has until recently neglected conservative Democrats. Though she is pleased with the slate of Democratic candidates running this year, she says: "We have our work cut out for us. If we don't stop the way things are going, this will become a Republican state."

Some 51 of 174 state legislators in Mississippi are Republican, up from nine in 1988. Powell attributes about half to switches.

Republicans are chipping away at the once solid Democratic hold on the South, though in many areas the gains still represent more of a trickle than a tide.

Besides Senator Shelby, for instance, Alabama has seen six defections - out of hundreds of local and state offices - since last November's elections.

"It's no great wave of conversions," says William Stewart, a political scientist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "But it's newsworthy because before it didn't happen at all. It probably represents the seeds of more to come."

For the Georgia GOP, Attorney General Michael Bowers is a success story. Fourteen months ago he was a Democrat. Now he's a Republican who spends part of his time urging Democratic officeholders to follow in his footsteps.

But far from being highly organized, the GOP recruitment is quite informal, he says. "They'll say 'Hey, Mike, you call so and so. I hear they might consider it.' "

There are two reasons for working the phones, Mr. Bowers says. It is a "good thing to do for our...traditionally one-party state. And there are a lot of good people who, if they don't switch, will lose the opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics."

Democrats aren't happy with some of their colleagues. "I don't like seeing them switch," says Steve Anthony, executive director of the Georgia's Democratic Party. "But it's always been curious to me as to why [Republicans] would say we're no good but yet they want all our folks."

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