It seems likely that as many as a dozen southern states, accounting for 25 percent of the delegates to both major parties' national conventions, will hold their 1988 presidential primaries or caucuses at the same time, in the second week in March.
The state legislators and political leaders who favor a southern regional primary hope it would give southern voters more influence on presidential issues and candidates, particularly the Democrats'. Creation of a southern primary would be the most significant change in the nominating process in years and could substantially change the strategy and outcome of presidential races.
The southern states' proposed move to change their presidential primary or caucus dates is a reaction to their dissatisfaction with the 1984 Democratic national ticket.
"We think our voice is not being heard, and we've never had that many agree on anything before," said Texas state Sen. John Traeger, chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference. "But we never got over last year. By the time it got down to us on May 8, Ohio Sen. John Glenn had been shot down. The candidates have to answer questions in Texas; they don't in New Hampshire."
One southerner dubbed the proposal "the Fritz Mondale Memorial Southern Regional Super Tuesday."
Political leaders, primarily Democrats, from 15 southern states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Maryland, unanimously agreed this month to coordinate their primaries and caucuses. They decided on the second Tuesday in March or the following Saturday for states that traditionally hold primaries or caucuses on Saturday or have a conflict on Tuesday.
"Without any equivocation we're going to do it," said state Rep. Charlie Capps of Mississippi. "We're excited that we can have more impact on presidential and vice-presidential nominations than any time since the War of Northern Aggression. Our Confederate money is about to become worth a whole lot more."
In most states, election dates are set by the state legislature, but representatives of most of the states indicated that nearly all objections and conflicts had been worked out. The plan has been vigorously pushed by Democratic governors Robert Graham of Florida, Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Mark White of Texas and Richard W. Riley of South Carolina and is supported by Republican Gov. James G. Martin of North Carolina.
A major obstacle in the past has been the predominance of local election concerns over the national primary and the preference of many states for their traditional dates. Some southerners also fear that a regional primary would expend all the region's political clout at the beginning of the nominating season, leaving it with no ability to influence the situation later.
"If the race is decided late, you've expended your capital. But we think the benefits in early primary outweigh this," Arkansas Rep. Jodie Mahony said. "If early influence is the way the game is played, then play it."
If a substantial number of the southern states move their dates forward, it will alter the schedule and rhythm established in the past four presidential races -- early heavy concentration on Iowa and New Hampshire, followed by a pass at the handful of early southern primaries, then decisive battles in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.
"This idea will move the whole timetable 90 to a 100 days forward in terms of fund-raising and would shift the focus dramatically," said John Deardourff, a Republican campaign consultant. "Candidates would have to think about doing national "We think our voice is not being heard, and we've never had that many agree on anything before." -- Texas state Sen. John Treager Southern Legislative Conference network television commercials because so many states are involved, and it will put an enormous strain on manpower because you can't move people from one state to another in following primaries as we do now."
Many Democrats, northern as well as southern, hope a southern regional primary would force their party to nominate a moderate candidate who could win in the South and break the Republicans' recent lock on Sun Belt electoral votes.
"To win nationally, the party needs a candidate who is acceptable to the South and who's in sync with our southern governors, who in my view are the future of the party," said Robert Squier, a Democratic campaign consultant. "The southerners can't beat Iowa and New Hampshire on the calendar; they can't be any earlier, but if they make that mountain -- that regional primary -- high enough it'll have to be covered from the start. It could make Iowa and New Hampshire sidebars."
Four of the 15 states -- Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Oklahoma -- already have their primaries or caucuses on the second Tuesday in March, known in 1984 as "Super Tuesday." The chances are rated good to excellent that they could be joined in 1988 by eight others -- Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.
The first four, led by Florida with 143 delegates, accounted for nearly 10 percent of the 3,933 delegates to the 1984 Democratic convention. The other eight accounted for 628 Democratic delegates last year. The total of 970 delegates for these 12 southern states was about 25 percent of the total at the convention, about half the number needed to nominate.
Representatives from the other three states in the Southern Legislative Conference -- Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia -- said they agreed with the regional primary concept but that for various reasons did not think their legislatures would change primary or caucus dates.
Neither Maryland nor West Virginia considers itself a southern state, and in both states the legislatures are in session in early March.
"It's the most active time politically for us and the timing represents a problem," Maryland Speaker Ben Cardin said. "There's no commitment to it."
Legislative leaders in West Virginia voiced similar objections.
Although Virginia's Robb has backed the plan, his successor, Gerald Baliles is regarded as being cooler to it.
Texas, with 200 delegates to the Democratic convention last year, is regarded as the key to the concept. Chances of the Texas legislature changing the date are "excellent," according to Speaker Gib Lewis and Duane Holman, an assistant to White who is running the governor's reelection campaign.
"Our key people are looking at it very closely," Lewis said. "It's a high-priority item."
Prospects also seem bright in Mississippi and Kentucky. In Mississippi the executive committees of both state parties have authority to change the primary date, and, according to Rep. Capps, both are ready to do it.
In Kentucky, a joint Elections and Constitution Committee, meeting while the legislature is out of session, has held hearings and approved a bill changing the date. The measure will begin the regular legislative process when the legislature reconvenes in January.
In North Carolina, legislative leaders are confident of making the change because of bipartisan support, with the Republicans led by Gov. Martin.
"I think our General Assembly will pass it and the lieutenant governor will support it on the Senate side," Speaker Liston Ramsey said. "A bill abolishing our current primary date has already passed the Senate, and it's now in the House Elections Committee. I'll draft an amendment changing it to the new date."
In Tennessee a bill establishing the new date has been introduced, but Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) has not taken a position on it. Tennessee Republicans want to see how it would affect the possible presidential campaign of former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr.
Speaker Ned McWherter said this "is an excellent time for a regional primary. I'm such a strong supporter I can't see why either party would object." Legislative leaders in Louisiana, who tried to change their May 5 primary to caucuses last year because of dissatisfaction with the Democratic field, including Walter F. Mondale and Jesse L. Jackson, but were blocked by the Justice Department, think there is a good chance the legislature will go along with the regional primary when it meets in April. Cost is a factor, which they think can be met by holding all the state and local primaries on the same date.
"It's very positive; I think we can pass it," Speaker John Alario said. "Last time the candidates didn't put in much effort in Louisiana."
The major objection in Arkansas is that all the school districts have elections on the second Tuesday in March, but political leaders think this can be overcome by holding the primary on the following Saturday.
In South Carolina, where the primaries now are run by the political parties and paid for by the counties, the only objection appears to be that the state would have to pick up the tab for the new primary, which probably would cost about $1 million.Political researcher Maralee Schwartz contributed to this report.