BIRMINGHAM, JUNE 1 -- Alabama Democrats staged such a nasty and splintered primary campaign four years ago that they helped elect a Republican governor for the first time in 100 years.
They are trying not to make the same mistake again. Hoping that Gov. Guy Hunt (R) will be remembered mostly as a mistake of history, the five major contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination have been downright docile as they've jockeyed for endorsements and support before Tuesday's primary.
Their television ads, the usual arena for negative attacks, are awash with images of candidates holding babies and shaking hands with senior citizens while promising to work for improved education, health care and more jobs.
"We formed a circular firing squad in 1986 and we're not apt to get in another one this time," said candidate Paul Hubbert in explaining why he even made a television spot emphasizing his rejection of negative campaign tactics. "The people of this state saw the Texas primary on CNN. They are turned off to negative campaigns right now."
But such a soft approach also has blurred the differences among the candidates. No clear front-runner likely to capture 50 percent of the vote has emerged, virtually guaranteeing a runoff between the two top vote-getters on June 26. (Hunt has only minor opposition in the Republican primary.)
The Democrats have been so polite and restrained that one longtime Alabama Democratic pol groused this week that the campaign has also been a bore. Even state Democratic Party Chairman John Baker lamented to a political columnist in Montgomery that bland campaigns have their drawbacks.
"If it continues right on through the first primary and the runoff, then Guy Hunt is liable to beat the nominee," he said.
The blandness is reflected somewhat in public opinion polls, which show the four leading candidates -- Hubbert, a teachers' union lobbyist; state Attorney General Don Siegelman; former governor Fob James and Rep. Ronnie G. Flippo -- splitting the vote almost evenly, with none drawing more than 24 percent. A fifth candidate, state Sen. Charles Bishop, trails far behind. The polls also show that 15 to 20 percent of the electorate is undecided.
"What we've got is four professionals who are playing it all the same way," said Charles Grafton, a political scientist at Auburn University's branch campus in Montgomery. "There is no charismatic George Wallace type or Big Jim Folsom character. These are solid citizens, establishment types who are all using the same techniques and none of them is capable of pulling out in front."
No single issue has dominated the campaign, despite Alabama's ranking as first in the nation in infant deaths and 48th in education spending. Abortion, always volatile in state politics here, has not emerged in a major way, although Flippo and Siegelman say they oppose government intervention in the issue, while Hubbert and James say they'd sign legislation restricting abortions. Polls show that Alabama voters mirror the national trend in favoring a woman's right to abortion. Two antiabortion bills died in the legislature earlier this year and even Hunt, an opponent of abortion rights, kept his distance from the issue.
Siegelman has attempted to set himself apart from the pack by framing his candidacy around support for a state lottery. Polls suggest that Alabama voters generally favor a lottery as a source for education funding, and Seigelman predicts that $100 million could be raised -- a prediction that his opponents and revenue analysts call overly optimistic. Hubbert and Flippo both say that a lottery would allow Alabama to sidestep a more serious attempt at tax reform and James dismisses the lottery as a gimmick.
Hubbert, executive director of the Alabama Education Association, has never held elective office. But he is considered a powerhouse in Alabama politics. He is so influential that he was blamed for playing a key role in the 1986 election debacle, when the nomination was wrested away from state Attorney General Charles Graddick and bestowed on Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley.
Graddick won a runoff against Baxley by a small margin after he encouraged Republicans to cross over and vote in the Democratic contest. Crossover voting is illegal in Alabama, although regulations prohibiting it had not been enforced in the past.
With the encouragement of Hubbert and other party strategists, Baxley challenged the results of the runoff, leading to the bitter and public Democratic feud. Based on that challenge, state Democratic officials awarded the nomination to Baxley. But Alabama voters, disgusted by the attempts to handpick the nominee, retaliated by electing Hunt, a folksy populist whose only previous experience in elected office had been as a county probate judge.
Hubbert is banking on his vast network of teacher supporters around the state to outwork Siegelman's statewide contacts, established by the attorney general during years of conducting task forces and public forums on everything from election reform to victims' rights.
Flippo, with his credentials as a seven-term congressman and homespun style, was the choice of Democratic insiders to head the ticket. But he has not been able to expand his base of support much beyond his home district in northern Alabama.
James, a self-made millionaire who served one term as governor from 1979 until 1983, is attempting a comeback as a political outsider -- the same technique that propelled him into the job seven years ago.
In a campaign of look-alike candidates, he has run the most imaginative campaign: His television ads feature a goat grazing lazily on a hill, a reference to Goat Hill, the slope on which the Alabama statehouse is built. The ad was so successful that James also campaigned briefly with several live goats on a bus.
The campaign's lone attack came from Bishop, who hovers around 2 percent in the polls and who launched a three-pronged assault against Flippo, Siegelman and James for accepting contributions from companies that generate hazardous waste. But the shot missed its mark and demonstrated the difficulty in making an attack in a crowded field.
Despite the high road traveled now, Alabama politicians are bracing for a different kind of campaign once the field is narrowed.
"I'll bet you any amount of money, it's really going to be something," political scientist Grafton said. "It's going to be a very dirty campaign, full of mudslinging."