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Republican upset in deep south poll

THE RESULT of the Alabama straw poll was such a surprise that it left state dignitaries smiling at their Southern "difference" and sent reporters scurrying to rewrite their headlines. While George W Bush confirmed his standing as front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa two weeks ago, he did less well when Alabama Republicans delivered their verdict this weekend in the first poll of its kind to be held in the South.

Birmingham, Alabama, a sprawling industrial city once known for steel and violent racial conflicts, is the very antithesis of Ames, the farm- belt college town that stages the Iowa straw poll. Where Ames had verdant fields and spacious marquees bursting with free sustenance, Alabama's Republicans thronged into the baking concrete of the brutalist civic centre, where the coffee and fries - which they had to pay for - soon ran out.

And where Ames had a full slate of candidates - bar the maverick Senator John McCain - all of them intent on throwing their dollars at an election more than a year away, Birmingham had but two national candidates: the black preacher and popular television show host, Alan Keyes, and Orrin Hatch, the long-time Utah Senator, who had distinguished himself a year before by trying to persuade President Clinton to admit his sins with Monica Lewinsky to avoid impeachment months before he was forced to confess.

Birmingham also had Angel Rocker, a local black activist and self-help advocate, who drew much applause and laughter, but polled only six votes. The other candidates all stayed away. They were either on holiday or campaigning elsewhere. Mr Bush was in the next state, Georgia, but did not deign to make the slight diversion from his plans. "This was never for the media or the candidates, it was for the Alabama Republicans," said the party chairman, Winton Blount, who professed himself delighted with the 3,000- strong turnout. It was, the organisers said, the biggest gathering of Republicans ever in the state.

The stars may not have graced the Birmingham civic centre, but Alabama's Republicans did their level best. They opened proceedings with a street parade, complete with band, cheerleaders and four real live elephants, trucked in from a circus in Illinois, which stood benignly to greet participants as they arrived, and then give rides to their children. The city's police, equipped with bicycle helmets against any elephant indiscipline, looked on warily.

Inside the hall, there was all the paraphernalia of the political rally. A (white) jazz bandplayed "Happy days are here again" at key moments and stalls sold the jokey political junk at which America excels. Sweatshirts with a Clinton profile and the legend: "So many interns; so little time." Little bottles of "Monica mouthwash" to "gargle away the DNA". Baby's bibs inscribed: "Future Republican President", and car bumper stickers: "Kevorkian for White House physician" (after the now-jailed euthanasia advocate). And brooches, scarves, T-shirts, bags, everything with the Republicans' elephant motif.

This was an almost exclusively white gathering; black Republicans are few and far between in the Republican Party anywhere and in the South they are still fewer. But the few blacks there were, several of them en famille, and decked out in American flags, socialised easily with the rest. Sherrill Williams, a self-employed financial analyst who had driven 200 miles from the small town in the south-east of the state said he had been welcomed. "The Republican Party represents my priorities," he said.

If the organisers were content, many participants were disappointed that Mr Bush and the rest had not shown up in a state that sees itself as the "bell-wether of the South".

The system of presidential primaries, which begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, skews the selection process in favour of the north and east, even though the political and economic clout of the South has grown exponentially in the past decade.

The Republican Party in the South has advanced at the same time. The Alabama straw poll was a first attempt to claim more influence for the South, and - enthusiastic participants insisted - certainly not the last. A hall that had listened attentively to the three candidates who were present and lauded their oratory, sustained its defiance.

Those who voted at Birmingham rewarded their two national guests. Mr Keyes, the black fundamentalist, topped the poll; his overwhelmingly white audience, as Pam Ward, a delegate, said, "liked his message and the way he delivered it". Mr Hatch came second, pushing Mr Bush unexpectedly into third place. It was, said Mr Blount, "a vote of Southern courtesy, a vote that said thank-you for showing up". But it was also a warning, however mild, that the South's voters cannot be taken for granted.

Alabama Results

Alan Keyes: TV talk show host and fundamentalist preacher - 500 votes

Orrin Hatch: Upright Mormon and presidential aspirant who takes his politics seriously - 458

George W Bush: Front-running centrist, damned by his absence and equivocation - 421

Gary Bauer: Moral majority with the moralism toned down - 124

Elizabeth Dole: Political wife tapping the women's vote - 71

Steve Forbes: Billionaire publisher out to "buy" the presidency - 43

Pat Buchanan: TV debater and right-winger wavering about leaving the party - 42

Dan Quayle: Bush snr's vice-president, damned by his spelling gaffe - 22

Angel Rocker: Local black activist trying to join the mainstream - 6