Newt charms Yellow dogs of Mississippi

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On a gorgeous late autumn afternoon in front of the Mississippi State- house here, the Speaker Newt Gingrich has come to rally one of the more dependable remaining units of the Republicans' retreating army. But this is not just a planting of the standard for Bob Dole. For better or worse Mr Gingrich has defined American politics for the last two years. Now he too is fighting for his own career and place in history. And unchastened, belligerent and hyperbolic, he is doing so in the only way he knows.

Yes, America's most unpopular major politician admits later, "of course this election is about my future, I am the Speaker of the House of Representatives. If we lose, I wouldn't want to run for minority leader."

Then, as is his wont, Mr Gingrich takes off into rhetorical wonderland. This dire situation would require a "very focused opposition leader", which "is frankly not my strength" (despite the fact Mr Gingrich was a minority whip of rare focus and ruthlessness before he became Speaker). "My strength is to think through welfare reform, and think through reform of diabetes to save millions of lives in Medicare treatment, and a diabetes education programme." It would not be fair to stay on as minority leader, since "No-one can do everything."

So the struggle against diabetes it will be, if the Republicans lose control of the House. Whether Mr Gingrich remains the third-ranking figure in the US constitution will largely depend on places like Mississippi, and his party's ability to win open Democratic seats in the South. Elsewhere of course, Mr Gingrich is part of the Republican problem. The least original and most effective television campaign advertisement for a Democratic Congressional candidate shows computer magic "morphing" his opponent into Gingrich. But not here. In Mississippi Newt rules, and not only with Republicans.

The state is a cameo of the changing politics of Dixie. For a century after the Civil War, Democrats held absolute sway. Now however Mississippi is the most Republican state in the nation, one of the very few which Bill Clinton doesn't have a prayer of carrying in 1996.

Of Mississippi's five House districts, one is already solidly Republican and a second will doubtless remain so, retained by a former Democrat more conservative than most Republicans, who last year finally made it official and switched party.

Down on the Gulf Coast, Mississippi's southernmost and most heavily militarised District is expected to re-elect Gene Taylor, a specimen of the emerging breed of "Blue Dog" Democrats. A Blue Dog is Republican in all but name, invariably anti-abortion, anti-gun control and pro-defence, who in Washington mostly votes against his own party. The most revealing electoral contest, however, is for the state's one empty seat, vacated by 76 year-old Second Wrold War veteran, Sonny Montgomery, after three decades in Congress. Mr Montgomery epitomised the old South, a conservative faithfully re-elected by knee-jerk "Yellow Dog" Democrats, poor and middle-income whites who supposedly would cast their votes for a canary-coloured canine as long as it had the word Democrat painted on its kennel.

But all across the South Yellow Dogs are being nudged towards Republican allegiance by the Democrat-led civil rights movement and the conservative shift in the Republican party.

Sonny Montgomery's seat will, barring miracles, fall to the Republican Chip Pickering - even though his Democrat opponent is as conservative as they come.

The reluctance is understandable, given the viperish attacks on the Presidential character, morals and ethics by Republicans desperate for an issue to ignite their cause in these last days of Campaign '96. The Clinton adminstration was "the most scandal-ridden, shamelessly dishonest" ever, Mr Gingrich claimed, during a 35-minute harangue here.

Elsewhere the charges seem to be falling on cynical ears. But in Blue Dog country they reverberate. "I believe we will pick up seats and expand our majority in Washington," the Speaker insists. And in this remote corner of the South at least, he is probably right. Whether that will suffice to keep Newt out of diabetes research is more questionable.