Look away, Dixieland

George W. Bush and Al Gore are coasting in the latest primaries, which are now just formalities.

Published March 14, 2000 10:23AM (EST)

For voters in six states holding primaries Tuesday, including Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi, taking a long lunch or sleeping a few minutes late was more appealing than going through the motions of casting a ballot, even if a local or state race was at stake. This was supposed to be Super Tuesday, Dixie style. But after last week's departures of both Bill Bradley and John McCain, presidential choices quickly diminished. One local Republican Party official re-christened the day "Stupid Tuesday" in a New York Times article, with voters essentially asked to rubber-stamp what voters in other states have already decided for them.

With Tuesday's victories, both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are expected to receive enough delegates to secure their respective parties' nominations.

That didn't stop the two putative nominees from going through the motions.

Gore watched the returns in Florida, hoping to send a signal that he plans to run hard in the state come November. Pundits have commonly placed Florida in the Republican column this fall because Bush's brother Jeb is governor. So perhaps it was apt that Gore chose the auditorium at Leon High School in Tallahassee as his election night locale. Reflecting the name of the school mascot, the theater is known as "The Lion's Den."

"That has nothing to do with the fact that it's just a couple of blocks from the governor's mansion," joked Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway.

But Hattaway did say that by spending Tuesday night in Florida, Gore hopes to send a message to Bush. "We consider Florida a battleground state, and the battle is joined tonight," he said. "Jeb Bush or not, we're going to do battle here in November."

The South could be a key battleground this election year, especially since both Gore and Bush call the region home. While some think Bush could well sweep from Texas to Florida, Gore is vowing to stake out some key states to tussle with Bush this fall. Democrats are hoping to capitalize on some good news they received in 1998, picking up a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina and the governorships of South Carolina and Alabama, and retaining the governorship of Georgia.

Since the 1960s, the South has been trending Republican, as the GOP adopted a "Southern strategy" to woo conservative Dixiecrats to the GOP banner. But with the remigration of blacks to the South, and the growth of the more liberal cities, Democrats are hoping to be competitive in certain key Southern states.

"We are not ceding the South," said Hattaway. "The Democrats did very well in the South in '96 with Gore on the ticket. He is a son of the South and knows the region well. We obviously can't take any of it for granted, but neither can the Republicans."

Jetting around the South last weekend, Bush showed no signs of letting up since vanquishing McCain last week. Bush zigzagged from Texas to Tennessee, Louisiana to Mississippi, where Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Nic Lott, the first black student body president at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, joined the Texas governor for a pep rally.

Meanwhile, Gore pounced on Bush territory, Texas and Florida, before heading home to Tennessee to vote Tuesday, and then back to Florida to watch returns. Gore got a Southern boost from Jim Bass, the Mississippi state director for McCain's presidential campaign, who endorsed the vice president last week.

"I'm supporting Al Gore rather than George Bush because Vice President Gore is clearly the more experienced candidate," Bass said, "and I agree with the direction he wants to lead the country." He added that the vice president was "more in line with the values and priorities [of] McCain and the people who support him. Al Gore favors real campaign-finance reform, sensible tax cuts and a strong national defense."

If there is a fight for the South in the fall, maybe voters will feign a bit more interest then. But until that time, many Southern voters are planning to just stay home.

Turnout in Louisiana and Mississippi was expected to be at an all-time low. Louisiana Secretary of State Fox McKeithen said voter turnout could reach as low as 10 percent. The state's lowest voter turnout ever -- 15.7 percent -- was recorded in 1984.

"I imagine I'll vote for Gore in the general election, but I don't feel strongly enough for him to go interrupt my daily routine to reaffirm his selection," says Chad Denning, a Tennessee Democrat who had planned to vote for McCain. "We have the technology now to have one primary day where people go and get to pick their favorites to run. We should have that."

On Monday, McCain supporter Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., endorsed Bush at a rally in Tennessee in an attempt to unite the divided GOP. Former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander also came to show his support.

Still, voters don't seem to care.

Tennessee newscasts are reporting turnout as low as 2 percent in some counties, including Davidson, which holds about 90 percent of the Nashville population. One precinct in Nashville had three voters all day.

The Southern primary was established in 1988 to give more domination to the region in the nominating process and specifically to offer a boost to conservative candidates. But that was circumvented by the rush to move up the primaries of California, New York and several other states before the Southern primaries this year. Some members of the Republican Party in Louisiana to hold caucuses before Iowa's traditional first caucus, but the move created a furor within the GOP, and Bush loyalist Gov. Mike Foster helped kill the early caucus.

Louisiana's parish registrars said the lack of interest in the presidential primaries is forcing candidates for local and district offices to depend on their campaign organizations to influence voter turnout.

"What you're going to see is older, chronic voters going to the polls, and nobody else," said Ernie Robertson, Caddo Parish's registrar of voters.

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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Al Gore George W. Bush Texas