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Politics still sees the South as land of the Big Dumb

And the head of presidential candidates rounds that first curve and heads south _ thundering into Dixie prepared to eat grits and talk down to the populace.

We are about to witness the quadrennial political effects of the popular assumption that a southern accent is the equivalent of a low IQ.

One might hope that the enduring stereotype of Southerners as a collection of slope-browed ridge-runners would have been shaken by the results the last time out. You remember 1988, when all the candidates came south and carried on obligingly about the need for a strong national defense, daringly endorsed traditional family values and courageously committed to no new taxes. Jesse Jackson won seven states.

But one fears that the South's actual maverick politics have not made a dent in the national presumption that most of us are borderline morons. More powerful than magnolia, moonshine and mint juleps, stronger than the image of red-necked black-hating bigots, is the notion that the South is the land of the Big Dumb.

What to my wondering eyes should appear just a few years ago but the newspaper headline, "Old Southern Custom, Dirt Eating, Seen On Wane." Sheesh, no wonder Yankees think we're a trifle slow. I'm a lifelong Southerner and never met a mud-muncher myself. Roy Blount, another son of the South, was moved to invent an entire menu based on this to-him-novel regional custom. Red dirt and rice. Blackened red dirt.

Of course, there are regional differences that will work for and against some in the current crop of candidates.

Paul Tsongas is minus-zero on the Elvis scale, but that won't hurt him as much as the sad fact that the butterfly stroke is just not real big on the southern sports pages. If only he played ice hockey instead; of course, we have no ice here, but it looks as rough as football. On the other hand, southern women do like gentlemen; Tsongas should probably study southern women.

The South honors the warrior tradition more than most regions, which should help Bob Kerrey. Florence King, a distinguished daughter of Virginia, once described southern mental life as "a Cecil B. DeMille screenplay sired by a Sir Walter Scott novel." But when you ponder the preponderance of Southerners in the military, keep in mind that the U.S. Army is almost certainly the most thoroughly racially integrated institution in the nation.

Ah, race, the southern curse. "If ya'll have come so far on race, explain David Duke, huh, explain him." Have you been to Louisiana lately? We've been hearing a lot about the terrible pain in New Hampshire _ economy gone bust, folks without jobs. I don't want to get into a wound-matching contest here, but you want to put our pain up against their pain, go right ahead. What people in pain often do is look for someone to blame and there's a sorry old southern tradition _ whenever anything goes wrong, blame Mr. Black.

But any decent populist, Tom Harkin, for example, can make David Duke look no-how by pointing out that "the people on welfare" (Duke's code phrase), did not create the S&L debacle, now costing us half a trillion bucks.

The people on welfare are not responsible for the orgy of mergers and acquisitions and leveraged buyouts that left the corporate economy staggering with debt and unable to make it through the recession.

The people on welfare aren't the ones who spent $2-trillion on the military in the 1980s without raising the taxes to pay for it, leaving us with a deficit the size of a galaxy that now eats half of every tax dollar we pay.

As for our native son, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and his even more native campaign strategist, Jim Carville of Louisiana, they'll have to answer to precisely the most caricaturish elements of the southern stereotype _ socially conservative Southerners do not much care for wife-cheaters and draft-dodgers.

Of course, even fundamentalist preachers are in no position these days to wax indignant over scarlet wimmin. A television comedian said the other night that Gennifer Flowers looks like a lady even Jimmy Swaggart would have passed up.

The president is supposed to have a lock on the Southern White Male Vote, but I'll put money on the proposition that Bubba is going to like Buchanan.

All in all, I think we can expect the South to do the unexpected. Bet against the conventional wisdom, sports fans.

Any takers for Jerry Brown?

Molly Ivins, political columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is author of Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?