SOUTHERN STATE legislators met recently in Little Rock amid signs that the southern regional primary they created last year has yet to achieve most of the objectives sought for it. The idea of a regional primary was suggested by a Texas state senator, and it spread like wildfire across the South. Southern states from Texas to Virginia plus border states such as Maryland and Missouri set their primaries on March 8, 1988. You could almost hear the cheering as one state legislature after another voted to create a primary in the hope of increasing southern influence and producing a Democratic nominee capable of carrying southern states and districts in November 1988.
The southern legislators did succeed in bunching 15 southern primaries on a single day early in the process, in states electing 26 percent of all Democratic delegates. But they have not yet reached their other goals. They hoped that the large number of delegates at stake in the South would overshadow the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. But candidates are campaigning intensively in those two states, while their forays into the 15 southern Super Tuesday states have so far mostly been quick stops at airports for local TV cameras or a fund-raising meeting.
The southern legislators hoped that the southern regional primary would encourage candidates to take stands that could win them white southern votes in the general election. But most of the candidates have geared their campaigns to the dovishness and economic pessimism of Iowa and to the cultural liberalism and opposition to nuclear power plants of New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island vote on Super Tuesday, too). There are exceptions: Missourian Richard Gephardt has been attacking Michael Dukakis for opposing some defense measures, and Tennessean Albert Gore has been at pains not to take a stand on Robert Bork's nomination. But the dominant melody is not Dixie.
Most important, the southern regional primary hasn't attracted a candidate with a distinctive appeal to white southern voters -- at least not yet. Charles Robb is not running. Arkansas' Sen. Dale Bumpers and Gov. Bill Clinton declined to make the race. Mr. Gore and Mr. Gephardt reportedly made favorable impressions in Little Rock, but are not the kind of candidates the creators of southern Super Tuesday had in mind. Sam Nunn would be, if he decided to run this fall -- but that's still an if.
The southern legislators may well be right when they say that a Democrat can't win the presidential race without cracking the South. But their device to produce a Democratic nominee who can is a long way from paying off.