LITTLE ROCK, ARK., AUG. 19 -- If anyone had brought along an applause meter as six Democratic presidential hopefuls paraded their wares during the past three days before 1,000 southern state legislators gathered here, it would show the runaway crowd-pleasers were Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) and Jesse L. Jackson.
But the first two aren't running (each got to water's edge then drew back), and the third is thought by most of the politicians here to be waging a crusade, not a campaign.
The attention and standing ovation they accorded Jackson this morning seemed to represent relief that he appears too busy bashing the multinational corporations, the Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans and the drug traffickers to take after them.
Still, when a presidential cattle-show is stolen by the nonrunners, the crusaders and the no-shows ("Sam Nunn, where are you?" was one of the buttons here. The answer: In Europe, deciding whether to get into the race), it tends to shroud the proceedings in melancholy. "I haven't been too impressed with any of them," Arkansas state Rep. Bobby G. Newman said of the active candidates.
Yet, these politicians also know that the wanting-what-you-cannot-have syndrome is familiar to presidential politics, typically peaking at the beginning of a nomination contest, when the assembled field never seems quite to measure up, and near the end, when the last gasps of doubts about the likely nominee play out.
They also know that it's useful to keep tabs on how well candidates they may not yet be inclined to support are doing in their states. Based on interviews with scores of elected officials from 15 southern and border states who attended the Southern Legislative Conference here, two tiers have taken shape in Democratic campaigning.
Those with the most in place in the South -- measured by political, financial and organizational support and favorable reviews from the legislators -- are Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Jackson.
The ones who have little or nothing to show for themselves at this stage are former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). Schroeder and Biden did not address the meeting; the six other Democrats did, along with two Republicans, former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
Dukakis, who spoke this morning, is the only Democratic candidate who has deployed paid staff in four southern states -- Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. He has also made inroads with Mexican American groups in Texas, with Jews and others retirees in south Florida and with Greek Americans throughout the region. Last night he raised $100,000 in New Orleans -- half at a Greek event, half at a political event.
He is the best-financed, best-staffed candidate. And his advance work is such that when someone on his staff found out that that Miss Arkansas is of Greek descent, she was invited to a breakfast meeting with a group of Arkansas Democratic activists.
But Dukakis has plenty of hurdles in the South, where on "Super Tuesday," next March 8, he will have to shed the northeastern liberal tag his opponents are trying to pin on him. "I can't sell Dukakis in my district," said Rep. James A. (Jimmy) Hayes (D-La.), a Gephardt supporter whose southern Louisiana district is 88 percent Democratic but voted 66 percent for President Reagan in 1984. "He's a liberal, and we've fallen on our swords enough in the past with liberals."
"At this point in the campaign, people are reacting to a category," said John Sasso, Dukakis' campaign manager. "As they get to know the person, not the category, we are going to do better."
Hayes is one of 30 southern members of Congress, and 70 nationwide, supporting Gephardt. They are the heart of his organizational strength throughout the region. This week half a dozen of them are campaigning with him throughout the South.
Gephardt gets favorable notices in the two largest Super Tuesday states -- Florida, where he has had fund-raising successes this summer and has the support of six House members, and Texas, where seven House members are supporting him.
But the candidate with the most backers -- and therefore the most buttons -- at this conference was Gore, the only southerner now in the race. He got good reviews from politicians outside his state. "The most articulate, intelligent candidate we've seen is Gore," said Mississippi state Rep. Charlie Capp Jr. "I think Al Gore could do very well in my district," said North Carolina state Sen. J.K. Serron.
Jackson was hailed for his oratory: "He puts things in language people can understand," said Alabama state Rep. Richard Laird, but he and most of his colleagues said they doubt Jackson would draw many votes ouside his base in the black community. On the other hand, that base is worth 25 percent to 30 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in the South. As John Pouland, a Gephardt organizer in Texas, noted, that could be enough to win Jackson a plurality of southern delegates on Super Tuesday.
The biggest disappointment in the South seems to be Biden. He made early favorable impressions and had fund-raising success, but political leaders in Florida and Texas said there has been little follow-up this summer, possibly because of Biden's preoccupation with Senate consideration of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork. Biden is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"He's a bright, articulate guy who has already made some important blunders that will hurt him in the South," said a Gephardt supporter, Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.). "Prejudging Bork when you're the chairman of the committee that will consider his confirmation was a big mistake."