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  •   Watts, E. Dole Win GOP Support

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 2, 1998; Page A09

    BILOXI, Miss., March 1—Southern Republican leaders today signaled their anxiety over the weakness of the GOP among women and black voters by casting straw ballots in favor of Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Elizabeth Hanford Dole for vice president in 2000.

    In a survey of 1,106 delegates attending the biennial Southern Republican Leadership Conference here that asked "who is your first choice for the vice presidential nomination," Watts, the only black Republican member of the House, led the field with 26 percent. He was followed by Dole, former secretary of labor and transportation during the Reagan and Bush presidencies, who received 16 percent. Watts attended the conference here. Dole did not.

    A plurality of delegates, 18 percent, selected Texas Gov. George W. Bush as their first choice for GOP presidential nominee in 2000, closely followed by publishing heir Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes with 15 percent, former vice president Dan Quayle with 12 percent and Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) with 10 percent.

    Michael L. Retzer, chairman of the Mississippi GOP and host for the event, said the vice presidential ballot results reflected an acknowledgment by delegates that the party should build support among women and blacks. "They realize that the Republican coalition must be broad enough to govern," he said.

    In 1996, President Clinton overwhelmingly won in African American precincts. The Democrat carried women by a decisive margin, while losing by 1 percentage point to GOP nominee Robert J. Dole among men.

    Here in the South, Republicans tend to win decisively among white voters, while the African American electorate remains the last bastion of the Democratic Party. Many Republican strategists believe that if the GOP could cut the Democratic share of black votes from the current 85 or 90 percent to 70 percent or less, the hurdle facing Democratic statewide candidates in the South would be almost insurmountable.

    Delegates to the three-day conference were much more reflective of the affluent, country-club wing of the party than of the evangelical Christian and born-again right that is also a powerful force in southern politics. The low participation by Christian right activists may have been because the conference was held in a gambling resort.

    In the presidential polling, those who followed Bush, Forbes, Quayle and Thompson were Sen. John D. Aschroft (Mo.), 9 percent; 1996 candidate and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, 8 percent; and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), 6 percent.

    Asked "Regardless of whom you would like to win, who will win the nomination?" Bush led with 31 percent to Quayle's 14 percent and Forbes's 11 percent, with all the others getting 6 percent or less.

    Bush's success in the symbolic poll was magnified by the fact that he was the only one of the prospective candidates who did not attend the event. The results suggest that Alexander and Gingrich face uphill climbs in the region where both have their political roots.

    The straw poll was one of the first party-based tests of strength as candidates prepare to vie for the presidential nomination more than two years from now. The prospective candidates had very little advance notice that the poll would be taken and, as a result, there was virtually no attempt by the campaign organizations to either send their own supporters or to lobby for votes during the conference.

    There were few candidate-financed cocktail parties, consultants and spin doctors; consequently, the poll findings may more accurately reflect the views of this wing of the party in the Deep South.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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