Alabama spoils image of the new South

THIS IS one Southern governor not destined for the White House. He may, rather, end up in prison. And the state he presides over, already far behind the rest of the United States by almost any measure, is left going nowhere.

Guy Hunt was first elected Governor of Alabama in 1986, on a promise that he would deliver a new era of social and moral renaissance. Now Mr Hunt, a preacher and the first Republican to attain the office in more than 100 years, is facing humiliation and disgrace - and most in the state are plain embarrassed.

Criminal charges brought against Mr Hunt by Jimmy Evans, the state's Attorney-General, allege he has improperly used government planes to ferry him back and forth to preaching engagements - he is a fundamentalist Primitive Baptist - and that after re-election in 1980 he pocketed dollars 200,000 ( pounds 138,000) in party funds donated for his inauguration.

A grand jury is due to resume investigating the charges on Thursday, and a trial is expected in the spring. Opinion seems divided over whether Mr Hunt will survive long enough to see out his second term or whether he will be in jail long before then.

'Clearly there's a case against Governor Hunt. The best thing you could say about him is that he is ethically obtuse,' said Carl Grafton, a political science professor at Auburn University in Montgomery, the state capital.

Professor Grafton fears the affair will perpetuate Alabama's reputation as a state of dirty politics, as embodied by its civil rights strife 30 years ago and the mercurial, once racist, leadership of George Wallace, its more famous ex-governor. 'Wallace's image is still with us and this just kind of reinforces the image of dishonesty in government,' he said.

Polls suggest that Mr Hunt has the lowest popular support of any governor in the nation and has become an object of ridicule. Even in Kat and Harri's Bistro, a favourite among Republicans in Montgomery, mere mention of the Governor raises sniggers. Austin, a local businessman, said he considered Mr Hunt 'a pretty good embarrassment to the state'.

Mr Hunt has polarised opinion further by resisting pressure from blacks - and from most of the business community - to lower from above the state capitol the Civil War battle flag of the Confederacy, raised there in 1963 by Mr Wallace. Mr Hunt was forced to remove the banner, to many a symbol of slavery and racism, by a state judge just two weeks ago.

The Governor's few defenders in the Republican establishment accept that the dollars 200,000 might have gone astray but argue that he was 'out of the loop' on all accounting matters and no theft was intended. They also charge that the case brought by the Attorney- General - a Democrat with ambitions for higher office - is politically motivated. Elbert Peters, the state Republican chairman, denounces the charges as 'baseless, very frivolous and totally without merit'. Mr Evans, he adds, is a 'prima donna with his own political agenda'.

The fight over Mr Hunt has stalled all government business at a time when the state is at the bottom of virtually every national league in standards of education, health and other social services and while other Southern states are making impressive progress and, in Arkansas' case, even sending their governor to Washington.

'We're pretty much sucking wind down here,' laments Wayne Flint, a preacher and professor at Auburn. 'We're not going anywhere compared to any other Southern states. Truth of the matter is, this state has been rudderless for as long a I can remember - and this trial doesn't help.'