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Democrats Risk Losing Blacks To New Republican Strategy

By failing to respond to the GOP challenge, Democrats may be decimated in the South

Republican candidate Bob Dole is reportedly worried about winning the South, the increasingly important region that has turned into a Republican stronghold over the last quarter of a century. But Democrats shouldn't jump for joy just yet. The time is ripe for a political second coming - a brand new GOP Southern strategy to decimate the already-damaged Democratic Party in the South.

More than two decades ago, Richard Nixon and his minions labored to wrestle important electoral votes from the South away from the old-time Democratic Party. The GOP targeted moderate and conservative white Democrats by preying upon racial and economic fears. It worked. And since then, Republican after Republican has duplicated the original strategy. Democrats, who once outnumbered Republicans by more than a 2-to-1 margin, are now barely even.

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These days, about as many Southerners identify themselves as Republicans (41 percent) as Democrats (42 percent). Top offices in Southern states now routinely go to Republicans. In South Carolina, for example, Democrats held 8 of the 9 statewide constitutional offices just 10 years ago. Now there's only one statewide Democrat, a comptroller-general with a penchant for passing out white and blue yardsticks.

GOP growth peaks

For years, Republicanism has been a Southern growth industry. Now, many believe GOP increases in the South have peaked, in part because of the rhetoric of the Republican Congress, and in part because there are not many more white moderate and conservative Democrats to flip.

But that's a traditional way of thinking. What if the Republicans have a new way to build their party - a way to solidify the South and to deep-six the Democrats for good?

How? By targeting a virtually untapped font of conservatism - black Southern voters. It might be a surprise to many, but issue by issue, many black voters are as conservative as white Republican voters. GOP chairman Haley Barbour said as much a few years back when he observed that if black voters were asked about 10 issues and were provided with Democratic and Republican answers - without the name of the party being mentioned - "a third or more of African-American voters will choose the Republican view." Happily for Democrats, black voters still generally vote in large part based on party preference.

But there are indications that the GOP may be employing a new Southern strategy to reach out to black voters. In Texas, Republicans have targeted Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett by tapping a black woman to run against him. Her last name? Doggett. Also, throughout the South, white GOP leaders have recently been going out of their way to show concern about the wave of church burnings.

And now we witness blatant pandering by Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp, who seems to invoke the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. any time a television camera is nearby.

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Democratic agenda

In the future, GOP outreach efforts to Southern black voters should increase; the GOP doesn't really have anywhere else to grow. If the Democratic Party wants to keep some clout in the South, its leaders have to get the message. There's a lot of work to be done:

*Stop taking the black vote for granted. Throughout the South, blacks have become more sophisticated voters. Democrats can't afford to wait until two weeks before an election to spread money around to "get out the black vote."

*Recruit a new crop of progressive leaders. Republicans develop candidates as if it were a science. After they scrutinize and interview several people for each office, they handpick one. Democrats, on the other hand, are sloppy. They wait until somebody files for a slot and then rally around. The first way makes sense. It's an aggressive, forward-thinking way to identify folks with promise and help them to win. In other words, it builds the party from the inside. The Democratic way is foolish. It relies on individuals - people who may not be best for the party - to pay the filing fee and run. Instead of party-building, they accept what they get.

*Stand for something. To win, Southern Democrats need to stop fiddling with pollsters, get back to core beliefs, and start doing what's right simply because it's right. People want leadership. Instead of being Johnny-on-the-spot with whatever the polls say, Southern Democrats should get down to the business of helping regular folks by providing opportunity; promoting a quality education for our children; paying the bills; and protecting the landscape from unfettered, unwise development for development's sake.

Right now, Southern Democrats are being saved from themselves because Republicans haven't stopped being greedy for their traditional white constituency. But if the GOP figures out that the way to attract black voters is to make their lives better economically and educationally, Republicans might buy the Democrats' big tent right out from over them.

*Andrew C. Brack, former press secretary for US Sen. Ernest Hollings, is a writer who lives outside Charleston, S.C.

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