Even in Bush Country, doubts persist President finds skeptics in N.J.

EDISON, N.J. — EDISON, N.J. -- Dorothy Avallone discovered her fondness for President Bush was fading recently when she suddenly realized that she was irritated by his voice.

Mrs. Avallone is the Republican mayor of the Republican-voting township of Freehold in Republican Monmouth County, N.J. She is a GOP believer and a Bush fan. She is still predicting that, despite polls to the contrary, New Jersey will not abandon its Republican tradition to help give Democrat Bill Clinton a landslide.


But she felt herself being caught up in a national mood swing in which voters could be getting ready to unseat the man who last year was the most popular president in history. As the voters have grown disenchanted with Mr. Bush's performance in office, more and more have concluded that they don't like him anymore, either.

"I had already decided I couldn't stand Ross Perot's voice," Mrs. Avallone said. "And then one day when Bush was doing all those interviews on 'Good Morning America' I was getting ready for work, and I thought, 'I don't like his voice anymore, either.' "


"I think he's on the defensive, and it comes through. He's tense," she said. "Clinton isn't really saying anything, but he comes across as more likable. And he and his wife are such a good-looking couple."

Pollsters say this shift in attitude toward Mr. Bush even among partisans is showing up in such measures as candidate likability, truthfulness and how much of their political message is being absorbed.

"People don't like Bush as much as they do Clinton, they don't believe he's telling the truth, and they have turned him off -- they don't want to hear him," said Don Kellerman, director of the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press.

Between March and September of this year, the percentage of voters who said they found Mr. Bush personally likable dropped from 44 percent to 32 percent, according to Times Mirror surveys. At the same time, the Democratic nominee's likability increased from 33 percent to 49 percent.

"People are looking for anything they can find to lay it on him," said Jane Clark, 70, who attended Mr. Bush's rally here yesterday at Middlesex County Community College.

To some degree, this change in attitude may be inevitable as voter anger at Mr. Bush's perceived failure to rescue the economy or even to understand how painful the problem is erodes their affection for him. Surveys show the president has failed, despite a number of attempts, to correct the impression held by many voters that he doesn't care.

But Mr. Bush is also inadvertently feeding this hostility by running such a negative campaign.

His speeches and his campaign ads have a strident edge. Even though Mr. Bush resisted a harsh


attack on Mr. Clinton in Thursday night's debate, he backed down only after the audience made clear it wouldn't tolerate mudslinging.

At his rally here yesterday, Mr. Bush repeatedly accused Mr. Clinton of a "pattern of deception" and said "he still hasn't told the truth" about how he avoided military service during the Vietnam War.

In the Oval Office, the president said, "you have to level with the American people. He is not capable of doing that."

Clearly rattled by youthful hecklers who supported Mr. Clinton, the president snapped: "I wish the draft dodgers would shut up so I can finish my speech."

The Democratic nominee has also run a sharply negative campaign, calling the president "old" and "pathetic" as well as attacking him for policy failures.

"But Clinton speaks softly and he smiles when he says it," Mr. Kellerman said. "With Bush, you see a guy making a harsh face, gesturing wildly and saying unpleasant things."


It's not as though voters are wildly enamored of Mr. Clinton. Despite his bus trips and saxophone-playing and soft Southern voice, the Arkansas governor has not been able to shake the "slick" label.

But this campaign is not about Mr. Clinton -- it's a referendum on Mr. Bush. And now the president seems to have squandered his strongest asset: his image as a nice, decent guy.

Where is "Gampy," who frolicked with his grandchildren in the Bush campaign commercials of 1988? Where is the kinder, gentler president who reached out for cooperation at home and abroad at his inauguration and enjoyed a political honeymoon of nearly two years? Where is the cool and confident commander-

in-chief of Desert Storm who came to symbolize America in a victorious fight for the right?

"There doesn't seem to be anything redeeming about him anymore," said another former Bush supporter who said those endearing personas had helped her get past policy disputes with Mr. Bush on such issues as abortion.

Mr. Bush's failure to show his more personable side during much of this election campaign was a calculated decision by his advisers that it wasn't necessary -- or at least wasn't a top priority.


All fall, his campaign has been concentrating on trying to make sure voters understand the difference in the two candidates' economic approach: specifically, that Mr. Clinton would raise taxes. They've also been pushing hard on the question of whether Mr. Clinton can be trusted with the White House.

The one positive ad they've run so far featured a harsh-looking Mr. Bush talking about his economic agenda. The rest of the Bush ads have been attacks on Mr. Clinton that don't show the president at all.

Reminding voters of why they once liked the president so much can be done "in the last four or five days of the campaign," said Charles Black, a senior Bush adviser. "It's more like closing the sales pitch."

Campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke said she has suggested to top officials that if the final debate Monday night fails to crack Mr. Clinton's lead as hoped, the president then could turn on the charm.

She proposed that he buy 15-minute television spots, acknowledge that he had failed to make his points in any other way, and "just speak from the heart."

"It couldn't be any worse," she said.