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US midterms Thursday, 29 October, 1998, 09:25 GMT
Finding the Right way
The Democrats used to have a lock on the South, but no more.
The Democrats used to have a lock on the South, but no more.
The BBC's Washington Correspondent Philippa Thomas reports from Alabama

In America's Deep South, voters are rebelling against a party they have supported since the Civil War.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]For most of this century, Republicans have been shunned in Dixie because they represented Yankees in the North during the Civil War. But Democrats are losing their solid South.

"It's a 180-degree turn because historically the South, including Alabama, has been solid Democratic Party area," said Prof Tommy Williams, from the University of Alabama. "In fact, when I grew up through the 1960s, there were no Republicans. They didn't exist."

How times have changed.

Today Alabama has a Republican governor. Both senators are Republicans and five of seven members of Congress are Republicans. The shift to the Right reflects changes in the South and across the United States.

One example of this trend is Dr Gill Aust. His father was beaten to death in his hometown of Geiger, Alabama. The killers wanted money for drugs. It was a political wake-up call for a man who had worked his way up from a poor rural childhood to professional success. At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Dr Aust tried to send his message to the party faithful.

"My father was murdered a couple a years ago. I sat and thought about that. What does my father's murder mean?" Dr Aust said.

"What I observed when I visited this little town of Geiger, made me realise our country was really on the wrong track. The little town looked like something that could have been taken out of an inner-city ghetto," he said.

Conventional wisdom says that Dr Aust should glide to victory. Alabama has been increasingly friendly to Republican candidates, and many have viewed this mid-term election as a verdict on President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But Dr Aust has less cash and less credibility than his Democratic rival does. He's up against four-term incumbent Rep Bud Kramer.

Rep Kramer sits on the right committee to protect local jobs. He also has the support of key political players, including the National Rifle Association.

Against such a formidable political opponent, Dr Aust had to begin with a gamble. His first campaign advertisement called on President Clinton to resign.

The plan backfired. Mr Williams said Republicans like Dr Aust can't rely on the presidential scandal to hand them easy victory.

"People are aware of [President Clinton's] problems, but at the same time, they don't necessarily want him impeached," Mr Williams said.

"Actually, public opinion was negative toward Gill Aust after that campaign ad."

Dr Aust and other Republicans who have tried to focus on the scandal may have misread the mood of the voters.

"I know [Gill Aust] has family values. And I have family values, but I don't think that's the point right now. The point is what can we do to save our jobs," said Laird Mullins, the owner of Mullins Restaurant, a Huntsville establishment.

On a national level, the Republicans should make gains in this election. The question is how many.

The Democrats have had a tough year. White House morale is at rock bottom and fights have erupted between the White House and Congressional Democrats just a week before the election.

But in the rest of the country, this election is more than a referendum on President Clinton's bad behaviour, and few are expecting dramatic results.

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The South shifts to the Right
See also:

02 Nov 98 | US midterms
27 Oct 98 | US midterms
05 Nov 98 | US midterms
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