George Will

In 1952 Eisenhower began the Republican rise in the South, winning 65 electoral votes from Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Notice, this was before the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling. In 1956, long before the civil rights revolution reached a boil, Eisenhower added 20 more votes, from Kentucky and Louisiana.

Much academic and journalistic energy has been expended attempting to prove that Republicans became competitive in the South not because of positive change there but because of a negative change in the GOP-- pandering to racists. But Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia notes that Eisenhower, like Richard Nixon in 1960, polled badly among Deep South whites. Eisenhower ran strongest in the ``peripheral South,'' the least polarized part.

States representing more than half the Southern electoral votes have been, Alexander notes, ``consistently in play'' beginning in 1952. That was before the Goldwater candidacy, before school busing, and at a time when congressional Republicans were stronger supporters than Democrats were of civil rights bills. A higher proportion of Republican than Democratic senators voted for the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills, and in 1968 Deep South whites preferred George Wallace to Nixon.

Beginning in the 1950s, millions of Midwesterners and Northeasterners moved to the South. But, Alexander says, instead of voting Democratic, they voted Republican ``at higher rates than native whites.'' Even today, ``identification with the GOP is stronger among the South's younger rather than older white voters.'' Republican strength has been highest among persons young, suburban, middle class, educated, non-Southern in origin and concentrated in the least ``Southern'' high-growth areas.

As Democrats embrace Kerry because of his ``electability,'' and as he ponders a strategy -- including a running mate -- for assembling 270 electoral votes, they and he should understand this: Their Southern problem is rooted not in regnant racism but in the region's increasingly individualistic, optimistic, entrepreneurial and religious culture. As Democrats build from the easiest to the most challenging electoral votes, should they gamble on finding the 270th in the South?

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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