Ala. senatorial race may be closer than it seems


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Measured by all the usual indicators, the Democratic Senate primary here Tuesday should be a boat ride for Sen. Richard C. Shelby.

Not everyone is unabashedly enthusiastic about him, of course, but he hasn't been caught bouncing checks or involving himself in conflicts of interest. He is a bit too conservative for some Democrats, but this is not a state in which liberal bomb-throwers prosper. And his opponent is a black man, Jefferson County Commissioner Chris McNair, in a state that has never elected a black to a statewide office other than a low-visibility judgeship.

But this is the year of Carol Mosely Braun and Lynn Yeakel and Ross Perot and incumbent congressmen biting the dust in impressive numbers. So even a hint of anything out of the usual raises questions about whether the 66-year-old Mr. McNair might be competitive after all.

The evidence is pretty flimsy: an opinion poll taken two weeks ago that showed Mr. Shelby leading Mr. McNair by only 49 percent to 46 percent. Mr. Shelby accused the poll-taker, Natalie Davis, of "cooking" the numbers and "shopping" the findings to the press. His own surveys, he said, have shown him with more than 60 percent of the vote and a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. McNair. A new poll published by the Birmingham News yesterday produced similar figures.

But Ms. Davis, a professor at Birmingham-Southern College, has been taking polls here for years and has earned a reputation for conscientiousness and skill. And she was the first to question her own findings -- to the point that she ordered an extra round of interviews to check them. The most puzzling finding was that Mr. McNair was getting 30 percent of the white vote.

That figure is particularly important because of the demographics of the Alabama electorate. In a Democratic primary, blacks can cast 40 percent or more of the vote depending on turnout, which could be skewed toward high black participation Tuesday because of a hotly contested race for Congress in the 7th District in which all the candidates are black. If turnout there is high, Mr. McNair wouldn't need 30 percent of the whites to play even, but that would be a remarkable figure for any Deep South black candidate.

Mr. McNair also has drawn some support from environmentalists -- he has the endorsement of the Sierra Club -- and from Democratic women angered by Senator Shelby's vote to confirm Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. But the notion that there are enough whites in those groups to elect a black is fanciful.

So the question is whether there is something else in the air this year that has not been obvious to the naked eye -- meaning a current of reaction against the political establishment even stronger than the evidence to date would suggest.

Mr. Shelby doesn't write off that possibility. "I don't take the anti-incumbency lightly," he says.

Mr. Shelby has many obvious assets in this campaign, the most impressive being the fact he has raised almost $3 million. By contrast, Mr. McNair has raised less than $60,000 and has yet to be able to fund any television commercials.

Mr. McNair also has been hurt by the fact that the two major black political organizations in the state, the Alabama Democratic Conference and the New South Coalition, decided on what they called "dual endorsements" of both candidates -- meaning they were unwilling to risk alienating even a conservative Democratic incumbent to go out on a limb for a black who didn't look promising.

In fact, Mr. McNair has never been a favorite of the most militant activists because, as one Democrat not aligned with him put it, "Chris always goes his own way. He can be pretty independent."

Mr. McNair doesn't try to hide his disappointment at the black groups' decision. "I wish it hadn't happened, but I don't have time to worry about yesterday," he says.

Mr. McNair professes to be encouraged by voters who tell him: "We're going to vote for you and Ross Perot. We want action." But it appears there will have to be an extraordinary number of them to give Chris McNair any real chance Tuesday.

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