WHEN BILL CLINTON was chairman of the conservative DemocraticLeadership Conference, his biggest critic was Jesse Jackson, who thought he was too conservative. What irony then that it now appears that only black voters can save Governor Clinton's presidential campaign.
Why? Because Clinton's support among white Southerners has fallen off due to his draft dodging. Georgia pollster Claiborne Darden says, "Clinton reminds me of a Civil War soldier with his stomach shot out, leaning up against a tree for days, waiting to die."
In order to overcome this image, some of Clinton's Southern supporters are stressing his Southerness, and emphasizing Paul Tsongas' Northern ethnicity. Georgia Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard said the other day, "Tsongas is not Greek for 'Bubba.' " Pierre's idea of an inside joke there. His campaign slogan was "Pierre is French for 'Bubba.' "*
Meanwhile, Clinton hopes black voters will make up his white falloff. He campaigned here in black neighborhoods over the weekend. He knew that a Mason-Dixon poll had him running behind Paul Tsongas 33-26 percent. That's with a 42-18 percent Clinton lead over Tsongas among blacks. If he doesn't maintain that bulge, or if blacks don't turn out, Clinton might not even come in second here. Maybe that's why he's now hinting Jesse Jackson could be his running mate.
Many white pols and their aides often look awkward -- even silly -- when they appeal for black votes. What is this, from Tsongas' Maryland campaign manager, supposed to mean: "No one is more liberal on your individual rights -- your civil rights, your gay rights, your pro-choice -- he lived two years in Ethiopia. Color doesn't make any difference to him." "Lived two years in Ethiopia"? Hey, put that on a bumper sticker!
Even candidates as experienced in bi-racial politics as Clinton can lapse into condescension. He reminisced here about Jim Crow Arkansas: "One day I went upstairs in the theater. I sat
there for about an hour. I talked to people. They were friendly. They didn't know what I was doing there. I told them I planned to go into politics and had to maintain my political viability." No! No! Just kidding. That last sentence is what he said a couple of years later explaining why he joined the ROTC to avoid the draft.
But wait a minute. "One day"? "About an hour"? He couldn't even stay for the whole movie?
Last thought on the Southern primary: Clinton consultant Paul Begala called Tsongas "that son of a bitch." He said later he meant "nothing negative or nasty." Paul, in the South, when you use that phrase positively, say, "sumbich."
*Bubba footnote: Last month a Forth Worth car dealership ran television commercials contrasting its salesmen with a stereotypically stupid one named "Bubba." So Bubba Benton, owner of Bubba's Used Cars of Fort Worth, sued for $9 million.