Tuesday’s presidential contest is too close to call, says veteran political analyst Hastings Wyman, but put on the spot for a prediction, he sees a narrow win for incumbent George Bush.

“Saying that, I have to hedge,” he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their 50th anniversary conference at Savannah, Ga. “The large number of undecided and new voters will be key to the outcome. “I think Bush will win narrowly – or Kerry will win substantially.”

But he doesn’t foresee a repeat of the extended post-election wrangle of 2000. “I believe we’ll know the winner sometime Tuesday night; I think it will be a clear win.”

Wyman, a Harvard law grad, and since 1978 the writer of the Southern Political Report, a non-partisan biweekly newsletter that covers the politics and politicians of 13 southern states, says this election is “so very close that any prognostication is more guess than reality.”

But whatever the outcome, he notes, the South will again play a key role in the election of the nation’s leader, with 168 electoral votes, or 62 percent of those needed to win.

Although the South is pretty solidly in the Republican column, he says Bush will have to win every southern state, particularly Florida, with its 27 electoral votes.

“He has consistently led polls in Florida, but always marginally. Republicans have conducted the most extensive get-out-the-vote operations ever seen, and the president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is very popular, which is an advantage. Also, the Republican nominee for the Senate is a Cuban-American, and that will bring out a high percentage of a population that is usually for Bush.”

Early voting in Florida has favored Democrats, Wyman notes, while Republicans usually do better with absentee voters. “The Democrats have a better record of getting people out to vote, but Republicans have implemented an intense get-out-the-vote campaign this year.

“I’m of the opinion,” Wyman says, “that Florida will end up in Bush’s corner, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it doesn’t. I wouldn’t bet the orange grove” on a Bush win, because Democrats who felt cheated in the 2000 election “have been working very hard, adding new voters.”

If Tuesday’s election should be close nationwide, he says, lawsuits “will be a problem, and Lord knows what we’ll see.” If not, legal challenges will be aimed more at constitutional voting/election issues.

Beyond the presidential race, Wyman says, much is riding on races that will decide which party controls the Senate. Of 11 key Senate contests nationally, seven are in the South, and “the Republicans have an excellent chance” of picking up additional seats. Here’s his view of the southern contests:

  • Kentucky: “The meanest campaign in the country” between Jim Bunning, Republican, and Dan Mongriado, Democrat, “was supposed to be a Republican slam-dunk that has ended up far closer than it should have been. But Bush is ‘way ahead in Kentucky, so Bunning should win.”
  • Oklahoma: Republican Tom Coburn “was supposed to walk away with this, but has campaigned with a foot in his mouth, which hasn’t helped his case.” Still, he thinks the Republican will defeat Democrat Brad Carson by virtue of Bush’s 30-point lead in the state.
  • Florida: “Nobody is attempting to call” the contest between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor. If Bush does manage a strong lead, Wyman says, “I think Martinez will win, and he’ll bring out the Cuban-American and Hispanic vote. But Castor will get a lot of women’s votes.”
  • Georgia: Johnny Isakson, Republican, is expected to win a slam-dunk over Democrat Denise Majette, “who is more liberal than most Georgia voters.”
  • Louisiana: A complicated primary race between Republican David Bitter and Democrats Chris John and John Kennedy requires a majority for a winner Tuesday, else there’ll be a November run-off for the two top vote-getters. “Vitter has been consistently leading in a very dirty race, but he’s been consistently below 50 percent. My guess is that he’ll end up with the seat…but Louisiana is the only state in the union to have never elected a Republican to the Senate.”
  • North Carolina: Republican Richard Burr has zoomed up and is now even with Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff, in the race for the seat held by vice presidential candidate John Edwards. “It’s a toss-up,” Wyman says.
  • South Carolina: Jim DeMint, Republican, “has had both feet in his mouth and has been hurt by his overconfidence.” Democrat Inez Tannenbaum “has run a near-perfect campaign, but my guess is that DeMint will win in this very-Republican state.”
In sum, Wyman says, “I think the Republicans will pick up several seats in the South, which will certainly more than offset Democrat gains in the rest of the country.”

The South will also play a very important role in House elections, he notes, “but not that many are that competitive. With computers being used to draw congressional district lines, candidates are being made as safe as they can be. For years, Democrats were able to gerrymander Texas to their advantage, but Republicans have redistricted the state and it looks as if they will gain six seats – which will make a substantial difference in the House and in the southern delegation.”

Wyman does expect that Democrat Charles Stenholm, a powerful friend to agriculture, will lose to his Republican challenger.

Despite the trend to the GOP in the South, future party political battles in the region will be fought more on the local level, Wyman says. “For example, a few years ago, only 13 percent of the sheriffs in the South were Republicans; now, it’s about 25 percent to 33 percent, and we’ll see a continuing effort by Republicans to replace Democrats in local offices.”

But, he says, competition will keep the South from being solid for the Republicans. “I don’t think we’ll ever see them as solid in the South as the Democrats were for decades. Four major changes that will have an impact on southern politics in the future, Wyman says, are:

--Population changes that are resulting in more diversity. “We’re seeing increasing power by African Americans in leadership positions in state legislatures, which gives the Democrats a significant voting bloc.”

--An increasing role for women voters, who are more attuned to social issues and have more moderate positions on issues – another plus for the Democrats.

--A growing Hispanic/Latino population. “Their numbers are growing all over the South, and they will have a major impact on voting patterns – although it will come slowly. A lot of them, for one reason or another, don’t vote, but that will change over the next 10 years to 20 years. Whether this will favor Republicans or Democrats remains to be seen.”

--Increasing numbers of gays in all southern cities. “They are beginning to make an impact on politics at local and state levels. It isn’t a major revolution, but they constitute a voting groups that mainly favors Democrats.”

All told, Wyman says, “The South will always have a strong Democrat party.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com