WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's thinly veiled political foray through the South, for a man with deep Southern roots, ordinarily might have been a normal shoring up of a natural constituency, particularly with Tennessean Al Gore as his vice president.
But the fact that the Democrats ran an all-Southern ticket in 1992 did not come close to resurrecting the old Democratic "Solid South." In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, Clinton won only 47 electoral votes to 108 for Republican George Bush, merely a transplanted Texan with the manner of the New England Yankee he formerly was.
The new president from Arkansas was elected nevertheless because he had strength in key states elsewhere, particularly in California, where its 54 electoral votes, exactly 20 percent of what he needed to gain the White House, put him over.
But the 1992 results in the South ensured from the outset of the Clinton administration that the new president could not count on his home region in 1996, and that fact is even more evident now with his popularity shaken in California as elsewhere. The conventional wisdom today is that he can't be re-elected without California, making it all the more important that he run much better in the South next year.
That prospect looks bleak, however, in light of several positions Clinton has taken as president. Most notable of these are his efforts to modify the ban on gays in the military and his support of gun control, two issues highly unpopular with white males in the South. As a Southerner, Clinton might have been expected to score well with these voters, but instead he became another of the string of Democratic presidential candidates after Lyndon Johnson who have failed to win a majority of whites nationwide.
Both issues spell trouble for him in the South next year. The decision of a federal judge the other day declaring as invalid the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise on gays in the military puts the matter on track for high-profile review by the Supreme Court -- and a public re-ventilation that will be of no political help to Clinton.
Neither will the intention of congressional Republicans to roll back the Clinton-backed ban on certain assault weapons, an action the president has said he won't let happen, indicating a likely veto.
Two factors are at the core of Clinton's problems in the South. The first continues to be his draft record, which remains stuck in the throats of super-patriotic Southern males. A broader one is the steady spread of Republicanism in the region, midwifed by Barry Goldwater in 1964, nurtured by Richard Nixon and brought to maturity by Ronald Reagan. Being a Southern Democrat is not a free ticket to support anymore, as it was for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Most noteworthy about Clinton's Southern swing is his message. Rather than confining himself to bragging about his administration's achievements, as most incumbents do, he focused on warnings of what the Republicans might do if their "revolution" succeeds.
In telling the Florida Legislature to "look at the fine print," he cast the opposition as proponents of excess and himself as the voice of cautious change -- a far cry from his 1992 rhetoric as the candidate who would himself shake up business as usual in Washington. "Let's rid ourselves of wasteful government," he said in Tallahassee, "but let's don't cut off our nose to spite our face."
The message is, at least, an improvement over the stunned silence and then the me-tooism with which Clinton first met the Republican election sweep in November. Gingrich and Co. helped the Democrats off the mat with their politically inept handling of plans to move the school lunch program to the states. By failing to adequately note that they would provide more money for the program, they allowed the Democrats to conjure up pictures of hungry children -- and resurrect the old Republican image of heartless Scrooges bent on further feathering the nests of the rich.
Clinton, on his Southern swing, sought to embellish the rap against the Republicans. The strategy concerns some Democratic politicians who find it too reactive. But without more aggressiveness in the White House, it's hard to be otherwise. So the president seems to rely more on warning about the other guys, while painting himself as the safer bet. It is a strategy that begs for the Republicans to nominate a candidate who will scare the pants off the voters.