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South jostled by no-party politics

After a recent session of the Alabama Senate, Sen. Vivian Davis Figures had something important to say to the lieutenant governor, so she chose her words carefully.

"You have obviously, obviously lost your mind," she told him.

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It might have been the most temperate thing Lt. Gov. Steve Windom had heard that session.

That's because Lieutenant Governor Windom is a Republican - the first one to inhabit the post this century. When he insisted on doing things his way in the Senate, half the chamber revolted. Senators screamed and shook fists, and the top-ranking Democrat lunged for Windom's gavel, the two of them fighting like kids for a lollipop.

The scene shocked even the most season political observers. But most agree, it's simply the latest, most graphic sign of partisan tension in a state still adjusting to the end of one-party rule - a dynamic shakily playing out across the South.

The outcome is far from certain. Yet this nascent balance - forged during the Republican Revolution of 1994 but blunted somewhat in last year's elections - is already beginning to change the way Southern politics work. With increased competition, partisan bickering has reached unheard-of levels here, and across the region, members of both parties are finding that they must repackage their message to attract increasingly open-minded voters.

"The old impression was that we would go from one party to another," says Tom Baxter, a veteran political reporter at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The reality is, it's become neither party."

In Alabama, the current controversy revolves around the role of the lieutenant governor. Unlike many states, Alabama has a lieutenant governor that has traditionally wielded tremendous power, with virtually life-or-death control over legislation in the Senate.

But this January, 18 Senate Democrats - a bare majority in the 35-member body - installed new rules aimed at neutralizing Windom and his coalition of 12 Republicans and five Democrats. A month later, Windom whisked through a revised set of rules, restoring his power and sparking the ugly scene.

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Since then, the Democratic coalition has boycotted the chamber, leaving Windom without a quorum to conduct business. Senators have so far burned one-quarter of the 30-meeting-day session, accomplishing nothing. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the dispute today.

The Senate meltdown isn't solely a partisan battle. Long-simmering animosity over legislation to cap big-money jury awards has a lot to do with it. But competition between Republicans and Democrats over political power in Alabama has only intensified the struggle.

"I think there is a recognition that we are a two-party state," says D'Linell Finley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Throughout the South, though, political analysts say neither party has done much to help itself to a position of dominance. "The one thing that keeps both parties competitive is that both parties are stupid," says Rick Dent, a political consultant who worked for former Govs. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ray Mabus of Mississippi before helping run the successful campaign of Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.

He says both parties have damaged themselves by picking weak candidates, or candidates that run weak campaigns. In other cases, candidates have catered to more extreme elements at the expense of bread-and-butter issues that concern mainstream voters, who often hold no party allegiances.

"It's the oldest adage in politics: Stray too far from the center and you lose," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

LAST year's governor's race in Alabama was a good example. Upset with incumbent Republican Gov. Fob James's focus on obscure issues, such as preserving states' rights, moderates rose up to challenge him. The battle drained Mr. James of resources that could have been spent trying to defeat Democratic challenger Siegelman. Even after James survived a tough primary, many Republican-leaning voters didn't vote for him.

Indeed, voters across the South are learning that Republicans can have just as difficult a time governing as their Democratic predecessors. Republicans also now face the challenge - as Democrats do - of trying to hold together a sometimes fractious coalition without alienating crucial swing voters. "The parties are dealing with their own contradictions," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Still, some Republicans scored key wins last election by reaching out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Gov. Jeb Bush's victory in Florida - as well as Gov. George W. Bush's landslide reelection in Texas - are case studies in how Republicans can effectively draw support from Latinos, women, even African-Americans.

As both parties reach out to independent-thinking voters, says Mr. Finley, Democratic and Republican campaigns will start to look more alike, with a greater focus on family-friendly issues such as education.

Such campaigns could become battles more of style than of substance. "Certainly, it lends itself to more negative advertising," adds Ms. MacManus.

As for the nasty battle in Alabama, many predict pressure to move bills will eventually force a compromise. Yet no one can ever remember such personal acrimony among lawmakers.

"The powers are so equal, nobody can win this," says Sen. George Clay of Tuskegee, one of the Democrats aligned with Windom. "It's a stalemate."

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