The conventional wisdom is that Al Gore will lose his race for the presidency in 2000, either in the primaries or in the fall. But my analysis shows that Gore is, by far, the strongest potential Democratic nominee. The reasons are simple: ethnic politics and the Electoral College.

"Ethnic" politics tends to be seen as involving Jews in New York, blacks in Detroit, Hispanics in the Southwest or the Irish in Boston. But the fact is that all voters everywhere like to vote for someone like themselves. Ethnic politics applies to white Southern Baptists just as it does to anybody else.

As for the electoral vote factor, every Democratic president from Andrew Jackson to Bill Clinton has carried the South at least once, and no Democrat has ever won a contested national election without some Southern states in his column. The South provided the margin of victory for Wood-row Wilson in 1916, Harry Truman in 1948, John Kennedy in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And recent political history provides powerful evidence that today only a white Southerner can effectively compete for Southern electoral votes. That means Al Gore of Tennessee--not Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

The solid Democratic South, born in the wake of the Civil War, began eroding after Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945. Lyndon Johnson's presence saved the South for Kennedy in 1960, but his administration changed the equation forever with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Upon signing it into law, LBJ commented that he was handing Republicans the South "for the next 50 years." That fall, Johnson, a native Texan, became the first Democrat since the Civil War to lose the white Southern popular vote.

In less than a decade, the South had gone from being the nation's most Democratic region to its least. Southern politics became almost completely polarized by race, with blacks overwhelmingly Democratic and whites pretty much Republican.

Since then, Democratic nominees have averaged less than 33 percent of the white vote in the South. Not even Carter carried the Southern white electorate in 1976, but he won every state in Dixie except Virginia because the South has the highest proportion of black voters in the country--about 20 percent. Democrats can win Southern states if they attract a substantial minority of whites.

The only way for national Democrats to win even 40 percent of white Southerners is to nominate one. It is no coincidence that the only two Democrats to win the presidency in these years have been Georgia's Carter and Arkansas' Clinton.

The Northern Democratic nominees since 1964--Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis--have averaged only about a quarter of the white Southern vote. From an Electoral College perspective, they have fared even worse: Humphrey is the only Northern Democrat to win a single Southern state--Texas--and that was partly due to the large Hispanic vote. Dukakis failed to win any Southern states in 1988, even with Lloyd Bentsen, the most popular Democrat in Texas, on the ticket.

The South will control 29 percent of the electoral vote next year. If the Democrats get shut out there--which will happen without a Southerner at the top of the ticket, especially if they're facing a Southern contender like Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, brother of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida--they need almost two-thirds of the electoral votes in the North and West. This is virtually impossible, as any reasonable Republican will win most of the Farm Belt and Mountain states (as Bob Dole did while losing solidly in 1996). A non-Southern Democrat would then have to win every "industrial" state and this will be difficult in 2000: Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey all have had GOP governors and legislative majorities for much of the '90s.

It was the race issue that drove the South out of the Democratic fold in the 1960s. But times have changed: In 1996, black senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt did better among white North Carolina voters than Clinton did, demonstrating that other social issues can be more important than race. A Southerner like Carter or Clinton can get away with being moderate to liberal on social issues and still win 35 to 40 percent of the white vote. When a Northern Democrat is seen as too radical on "values" issues, it is just too much for white Southerners to take.

Bill Bradley is an honorable and able public servant. He is the prototypical New Democrat who can win the Western states: moderate on fiscal issues, sensitive to the concerns of working women, a friend of the black and Hispanic communities, and appealing to information age workers. He would likely sweep both his Northeastern home turf and the Pacific Coast. Nationwide, he would lock in the Democrats' liberal base. All of which strongly suggests that he would make an excellent choice for vice president. But his liberalism on social issues would probably doom him in the South. (If Bradley does crack the South, he will become as commanding a national figure as Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt.)

Al Gore has won four statewide elections in Tennessee. In his previous run for the presidency, in 1988, he swept the white Southern primary vote, and only failed to win a solid South because Jesse Jackson siphoned off the black electorate and took five states. Gore single-handedly kept both Tennessee and Kentucky in the Democratic column in 1992 and 1996. He would win both those states in 2000 and have a decent shot at Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. (Winning even the four smallest Southern states would be equivalent to pulling Texas out of the GOP column.) If he won four Southern states while holding onto the Democratic strongholds of the Northeast, the upper Midwest and West Coast, he would need only a few big states like Illinois and Michigan to get the necessary 270 electoral votes.

Southern influence--via the powerful cultural force of the Southern Baptist Convention--goes well beyond the Old South: The southern portions of the critical industrial states of both Ohio and Illinois have substantial Baptist populations, as do the border states of Missouri, Maryland and Delaware. With the big cities of those states casting record low votes every year, Democrats must do better in the rural and suburban areas to carry them. A Southerner like Clinton or Gore is an easier sell in the Baptist precincts of southern Ohio or downstate Illinois than Humphrey was or Bradley would be.

So here we are. If the vice president loses the consecutive early primaries in New Hampshire, New York and California, he is likely finished. But Gore is the only Democrat who can break the GOP grip on the South and win nationally in 2000. If Bradley were to get shut out of the South's 155 electoral votes, he would need to win every big state outside the South. The loss of any two Midwestern industrial states would mathematically clinch an electoral majority for the Republicans, even if Bradley won the national popular vote.

Bradley's fast start may have made Gore less inevitable as the next Democratic nominee in the primaries. But the fact remains that Gore's Southern roots make him the most electable Democrat in the general election.

Patrick Reddy is the pollster for California's State Assembly Democrats.