JACKSON The South’s “Super Tuesday” on March 12, with Missis

AUTHOR: MINOR

JACKSON The South’s “Super Tuesday” on March 12, with Mississippi one of five states voting that day in presidential preference primaries, could turn out to be “super” for one GOP hopeful, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Once a dark horse, Alexander surprisingly ran a strong third in the Iowa caucuses, and did it again in New Hampshire’s highly-charged GOP primary.

In Mississippi, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole seemed to have the field to himself on March 12, but now Lamar Alexander appears to be a bona fide challenger.

What obviously has changed for the better for Alexander in Mississippi and some other states, is that Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, once a top contender has pulled out of the GOP presidential horse race. Gramm, despite his $14 million campaign warchest, fizzled badly in his first two outings in Louisiana and Iowa.

The Gramm demise, it should be noted, leaves Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott without a horse to ride. Lott, in the early stages of the presidential derby, had been for Gramm, to whom Lott owed much for his one-vote election as GOP Whip a year ago. Increasingly of late, however, Lott had become distant from Gramm’s candidacy as it began to sink.

Probably as part of his petty little feud with senior Sen. Thad Cochran, Lott had not wanted to be found backing the same candidate as Cochran. For months Cochran has openly supported his Senate colleague Dole and is, in fact, Southern co-chairman of Dole’s campaign.

Of course, Dole also has the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice, whose support should play well with a lot of Republicans in the March 12 primary.

Since last October, Dole has had a campaign office in Mississippi, headed by Suzanne Rogers, who previously was assistant director of the Mississippi Republican Party. No other GOP presidential hopeful has had a campaign office in the state up to now.

But things have been moving in Mississippi for Alexander, especially since he showed up well in what had become a lackluster, back-stabbing, mud-wrestling match for the Republican presidential nomination.

Significantly, Mike Retzer, the McDonald’s hamburger magnate from Greenville, soon-to-be made new chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, is state chairman for Alexander’s campaign, and Retzer has some heavyweight helpers, plus some money to spend.

The Alexander backers have already raised over $200,000 in the state, and the former Tennessee governor is already lined up to come to Mississippi on March 7, when there will also be a fundraiser.

What is also going for Alexander, so far as Mississippi is concerned, is that his senior strategist in his national campaign is former Mississippian Lanny Griffith, who was state party director during Retzer’s previous tenure as state GOP chairman in the late 70s and early 80s.

It should help Alexander’s chances here that Tennessee will be one of the March 12 Super Tuesday primary states, along with Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma. Even moreso, Texas is now considered up for grabs since Gramm pulled out.

Mississippi’s 33 delegate votes in the Republican presidential preference primary, will be “winner-take-all” under the rule recently readopted by the GOP state executive committee. This means, whoever leads the pack on March 12, gets all the delegate votes in the Republican national convention.

Both Dole and Alexander people had backed the “winner-take-all” idea when it came up before the state executive committee, in opposition to the then-Gramm supporters who had wanted an apportionment of the votes.

No ostensible campaign activity has been seen in Mississippi Patrick Buchanan, the brawling arch-conservative ex-commentator, now the darling of the Religious Right.

Riding his message of economic populism in a job-anxious state, Buchanan edged out Dole in New Hampshire’s primary, sending shudders through the Republican Party that they may have a GOP George McGovern on their hands. Buchanan obviously will have some backing in Mississippi, with its core of religious fundamentalism.

Multi-millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, the “flat-tax advocate” doesn’t figure to do very well here, if he stays in.

Meanwhile, Dole is organized in every county, according to Rogers, who says that the Dole campaign “has been the best I’ve ever seen.”

Clarke Reed of Greenville, the patriarch of the Republican Party in Mississippi, who is backing Dole, says unequivocally, “Mississippi is still Dole country.”

But Retzer, who normally is a Reed political ally, believes Alexander is the candidate Mississippians want for a president. “A lot of people here know what kind of job he did up there in Tennessee,” he declared.

In all there will be 12 candidates on the GOP presidential ballot March 12. Outside of the “generally recognized” candidates Alexander, Buchanan, Dole, Forbes, Gramm (he’s still on there), California Rep. Bob Dornan, and Sen. Richard Lugar, there are the lesser-knowns, such as Alan Keyes, the conservative black commentator from California, Morry Taylor, Joe Billy Clegg (from the Mississippi Gulf Coast), Charles Collins, and Tennie Rogers.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.

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