SPRINGFIELD, Ga. -- When Sen. Sam Nunn stepped to the microphone at a Chamber of Commerce dinner here recently, no one in the audience knew for sure if he was about to make a campaign speech or a farewell address.
The last of a legendary breed of powerful Southern Democrat, the Georgia senator is thinking about retiring when his term ends next year. Polls show that he is popular enough to be re-elected, but he may not want to run.
Across the South, old bulls like Mr. Nunn have been stranded high and dry by rising Republicanism. He's the only white Democrat left in his state's 13-member congressional delegation. recently as 1992, there was but a single Republican: Rep. Newt Gingrich.
In Washington, Mr. Nunn is surrounded by Republicans. He has had to surrender his cherished chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, and his prospects for regaining it before 1999 appear dim.
Analysts say the GOP's Southern surge shows no signs of cresting, which means that Republicans could dominate Congress for the next 40 years, as Democrats did for the previous 40.
"It's almost at the point now where you've got internal combustion, and events will move fairly rapidly from here," says Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist.
The Republican wave in the South is likely to keep building, as aging Democratic incumbents retire and new districts are carved out of fast-growing, heavily Republican suburbs. As a result, Mr. Black says, the South could generate a "surplus" of Republican senators and representatives big enough to keep the party in control of Congress "and make it a truly national party for the first time in its existence."
These trends have prompted some dark thoughts among some Democrats about the impending demise in the South of their party.
"I do absolutely think it's a vanishing breed," says Jim Quackenbush, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign in the South.
Most politicians, however, expect the Democrats to survive -- if for no other reason than because of the region's large number of African-Americans, the party's most loyal backers. But the Republican surge is certainly not over yet.
A Republican breakthrough
Last fall, for the first time in history, Republicans gained more than half the House and Senate seats in the South. The big GOP congressional vote, "without a presidential landslide to drive it, indicates that there's been a Republican breakthrough in the South," says Haley Barbour, the Mississippian who chairs the Republican National Committee. "After Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, it was no longer stigmatized to be a Republican in the South. By 1994, it was an advantage."
So far, none of the Democratic senators from the South whose terms expire next year have chosen to seek re-election.
Mr. Nunn says he would run if he had to decide now. But he plans to reach "an orderly decision" over the summer, he says, adding, "I don't want to rush it."
Three others -- Sens. Howell Heflin of Alabama, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and David Pryor of Arkansas -- opted to retire instead, which improves Republican chances of picking up their seats.
Other conservative Democrats, such as Alabama's Sen. Richard Shelby and Georgia's Rep. Nathan Deal, have switched to the GOP since November, and more are expected to follow, including Reps. Greg Laughlin of Texas, Mike Parker of Mississippi and possibly Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana.
"Democratic officeholders in the South are being faced now with either extinction or, out of expediency, changing parties," says Tom Perdue, a former top aide to two Democratic governors of Georgia who has gone on to manage winning Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia and Tennessee over the past two years.
"People down here are absolutely fed up with a Democratic Party promoting values that you don't want your children to grow up and embrace," says Mr. Perdue, a Southern strategist for Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign, citing homosexual rights, the current welfare system and affirmative action as examples.
White males shift right
Behind the power shift in the South lurks the matter of race, never far from the surface where the region's politics are concerned. Over the past 30 years, the crucial change in the South has been the flight of white conservatives to the Republican Party.
"It's hard to overstate the devastation to the Democratic Party among white males," says Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta. His surveys last year in South Carolina, he says, found that only 8 percent of white men identified themselves as Democrats.
Rep. Jack Kingston, who in 1992 became the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Georgia's coastal congressional district, sees the change when he campaigns door-to-door.
"In 1984, people would tell me, 'My granddaddy was a Methodist and my daddy was a Methodist. My granddaddy was a Democrat and my daddy was a Democrat. And that's it.' No further discussion," he says.
He rarely hears that anymore. "What I have gotten more of is, 'I used to be a Democrat, but you switched me,' " he says. "It's not really me who's switched them, but the national Democratic Party, which has gotten so left-wing."
To many Southerners, the turning point was 1964. While losing the national election in a landslide, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater swept the Deep South after attacking the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law that year by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Republicans have dominated presidential politics in the region ever since.
More recently, Republicans and black Democrats have joined forces to boost the number of legislative seats for each, at the expense of white Democrats. Such "bleaching" of legislative districts, as one Republican strategist described the process, involves bunching African-American voters into districts that guarantee the election of black candidates, leaving the surrounding districts more heavily white.
This racial gerrymandering has produced striking results. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of black House members from the South more than tripled, from five to 17, while the number of Republicans also jumped, from 46 to 73, and the number of white Democrats fell, from 78 to 46.
The racial split has reached its ultimate extreme in Georgia, whose delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives is now neatly divided by race: eight Republicans, all white; three Democrats, all black. Unless the Supreme Court halts racial gerrymandering, in a pair of closely watched decisions expected this week, Republican strategists predict that similar racial splits will evolve in other Southern states.
Democratic National Chairman Donald Fowler, a South Carolinian, says that it would be "naive to try to sugarcoat it. . . . The race issue has taken its toll on the party in the South, there's no question about it."
But Mr. Fowler and many others insist that too much can be made of the racial factor. While race may have provided the spark, the recent political evolution of the South involves much more: a continued migration of Republicans into the region from other parts of the country; the rise of religious conservatives as a powerful Republican political force; the aging of the South's traditional Democratic voter base, which is literally dying off; and the unpopularity of the national leadership. In particular, President Clinton has been judged harshly by fellow Southern whites, who judge him as weak of character and dangerously liberal.
Perhaps most important to the future of Southern politics is the fact that Republicans are reaching critical mass across the region.
Southerners, especially those under age 40, are increasingly comfortable with casting Republican votes for state and local candidates. And the Republican Party, in turn, is building something it never had before: a Southern farm team that can provide experienced political talent for years to come.
In 1994, Republicans won four Southern governorships, giving the party a majority of governorships in the South for the first time.
South Carolina, the Deep South state where the GOP trend is most advanced, elected a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general last year; all three were Democrats four years earlier.
The number of Republican state legislators in the South has more than doubled since the early 1980s. And last fall, the GOP gained majority control of the state House of Representatives in North and South Carolina for the first time.
While Democrats still control most county courthouses, that, too, is changing. Here in rural Effingham County, Ga., for example, where Mr. Nunn addressed the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner this month, voters elected their first Republican commissioner in 1992; last fall, they added a second, Philip King. An emergency medical technician who commutes to work in Savannah, 25 miles away, Mr. King might have been a Democratic politician in another era; instead, he's a Republican "because of my conservative beliefs," he says.
Personally popular Democratic officials can still survive in the South's new political environment, politicians say, pointing to Mr. Nunn and to Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana. But even those Democrats who decide to stay and fight are likely to encounter more Republican opposition from now on.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C., a highly regarded 20-year incumbent, will face a serious Republican re-election challenge for the first time this fall. Mr. Riley, who narrowly missed becoming the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994, has one word to describe the flight of his state's white voters to the Republican Party: "Scary!"
But he insists in an interview that he's optimistic that those voters will soon start moving back in the Democratic direction, as the governing Republicans are forced to make budget decisions that take money out of people's pockets. "I'm old enough to have read the obituary of the Republican Party," he says. "You've just got to take a longer view of things. The pendulum swings back."
Mr. Riley believes Democrats can put winning biracial coalitions together in the South with progressive ideas on "the environment, equal opportunity and fairness and racial progress and quality education."
A more reliable formula, however, may be the one Mr. Nunn and others have long espoused: staking out positions independent of the national party, particularly on issues that matter to conservative whites. Mr. Nunn opposed Mr. Clinton's plan to allow gays in the military, and was one of three Senate Democrats to support the Republican budget.
In his Effingham County address, which sounded suspiciously like a campaign speech to some of the 250 Georgians in attendance, Mr. Nunn talked foreign and domestic policy for nearly 45 minutes. He promoted a tax break that he and Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici are co-sponsoring, and he praised Mr. Dole's recent attack on Hollywood's morals, saying that, if anything, it didn't go far enough. The name Bill Clinton was never mentioned.
"Democrats have figured out that the way to hang on is to act like a Republican," says Mr. Ayres, the GOP pollster. "But even that is wearing thin among white voters.
"Why do you choose a pseudo-Republican," he wonders, "when you can have the real thing?"