Dole must ride Southern wave to White House

RUPERT CORNWELL

Jacksonville, Florida

Don Brewer's pride and joy is The Chart. It stands on the wall of his office here, plotting how in the space of 109 days last year, John Delaney rose from from 3 per cent in the polls to be elected the first Republican mayor of Jacksonville since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.

True, Mr Delaney had a little help: a split Democratic field, the city's capture of a brand new NFL franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in which he was largely instrumental - and of course the enthusiasm and zeal of Mr Brewer, a local party chairman whose sheer love of the game of politics bubbles in every word he utters.

Not of course that Mr Delaney's stunning victory of 1995 has much direct bearing on the pre-ordained victory of Bob Dole on Tuesday in Florida when, barring an astounding reversal, he will scoop up the 98 delegates at stake in the presidential primary. At the present pace - and especially after Mr Dole won all 93 delegates in New York on Thursday - "Super Tuesday" is turning into "Superfluous Tuesday", just another step in his progress towards coronation at the party convention in San Diego this August.

Lamar Alexander had made a big push here, but the former Tennessee Governor pulled out this week and threw his support behind Mr Dole. Steve Forbes's flat-tax message may stir some excitement in Florida's retiree community, and Pat Buchanan will doubtless pick up votes among born-again Christians and sundry right-wingers in these northern parts of Florida, rooted in old Dixie.

Indeed, Mr Buchanan's operation in Jacksonville last month provided one of the more bizarre incidents so far of Election '96, when it was revealed that his volunteer local organiser, Susan Lamb, was a follower of David Duke, Ku Klux Klansman, white supremacist and erstwhile candidate for Governor of Louisiana.

Television crews and reporters descended on Republican headquarters here to search for incriminating racist literature. The hunt was in vain, the organiser was sacked. But the embarrassment for Jacksonville Republicans was real: "Obviously we can't do background checks on everyone who offers to help a candidate," said Mr Brewer. "But this perception of Mr Buchanan will hurt our party. The real question is why people like Ms Lamb are attracted to him."

So Mr Dole it is, the man with the machine but no message - managing none the less to find a little something for everyone in this rootless state. Up here his conservatism and military record plays well. The senior citizens in their retirement communities see one of their own in a man of 72, while down south his fulminations against Fidel Castro please the Cuban-Americans in Miami. "In Florida especially," said Matt Corrigan, political scientist at North Florida University here, "momentum is everything, and right now Dole has it. I expect him to get 40 to 50 per cent."

But will that momentum last until November? In Florida, as across the country, thoughts are already turning to the general election. "It's time to put this thing to bed," Mr Dole told his New York victory party by satellite from a campaign stop in Tampa Bay/St Petersburg on Thursday evening. "If the others want to stay in, they should focus on Bill Clinton, not me. Let's move on to the big job, of restoring conservative leadership to the White House." Which leads us back to Mayor John Delaney.

His election last May was yet more proof of the change that is redrawing the US socio-political map - the secular shift of the South from Democrats to Republicans. Florida is one of the last hold-outs. The Republicans have a majority of the state senate and, Mr Brewer says, will capture its House of Representatives this autumn. But one of its senators is still a Democrat, and a brilliant 1994 campaign enabled Lawton Chiles to hang on as Governor.

This is the wave that Mr Dole must ride to win the White House. "The trouble is there's no enthusiasm for him," noted Mr Corrigan. "You can't establish a base here because the base is always moving." Florida, so much of it a glistening, transient Anywhere USA "is a restless place, always channel-surfing politically and socially." And therein lies Mr Clinton's opportunity.

Although Florida has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, Mr Chiles' win has Democrats this year hoping. All the more vital therefore for Republicans to consolidate their gains in the north of the state. But despite The Chart, Mr Brewer is a worried man.

Part stems from the sheer lack of excitement Mr Dole arouses, part from a failure to adjust after the conquest of Congress in 1994. "Our advance is not irreversible," Mr Brewer warned. "We still haven't learnt how to be a majority."

Dole profile, page 19

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