Race issue on back burner Candidates target suburban voters


Nearly six months after racial anger tore apart Los Angeles with three days of rioting, the issue of race relations has faded to a distant, infrequent echo in the presidential campaign, drowned out by the economic messages crafted for the suburban middle class.

Although such a strategy may be electorally sound, political professionals say, it may also make race relations a tougher issue to tackle once the campaign ends.

"If you attain office by running away from what are the basic problems, then you have a mandate to do nothing about the problems, and then you're a failure," said Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat.

Mr. Bradley, who has made something of a personal crusade out of the race issue during the past 15 months, added that he feels Democratic nominee Bill Clinton still addresses the subject from time to time.

But non-partisan observers say Mr. Clinton has steadily softened his message on racial unity after emphasizing it during his early campaigning last winter. President Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot, meanwhile, have virtually ignored it from the beginning, analysts say, talking about it only in the most general terms.

On a pragmatic level, it's easy to understand why.

The candidates "have defined the political battleground as the suburbs, and the suburbs are predominantly white," said Margaret M. Weir, an authority on politics and race relations for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"To talk about race would bring up a whole set of other issues, such as the problems of the cities, and the suburbs are a place where people have gone to get away from those kinds of problems. The economy now is first on people's minds."

Or as Mr. Bradley said, repeating a slogan posted at Mr. Clinton's campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., "It's the economy, stupid."

The candidates' latest opportunity to meet the issue head-on came in the first presidential debate Oct. 11, when a questioner asked Mr. Perot why racial division was continuing to "tear apart our great cities . . . and what would you do to end it."

But none of the candidates answered with much more than vague generalities.

Mr. Perot's two-minute answer was a collage of feel-good generalities, such as "We are all in this together. We ought to love one another because united teams win and divided teams lose."

Mr. Clinton used his rebuttal to also speak in general terms, saying he had witnessed the costs of racial division in his home state. Mr. Bush took the occasion to tweak Mr. Clinton for the Arkansas Legislature's failure to pass a civil rights bill.

In the second debate, Thursday night, the moderator called for a question on the subject, but a member of the audience responded by asking, "When do you estimate your party will both nominate and elect an Afro-American and female ticket to the presidency of the United States?"

The silver lining, analysts say, is that in sidestepping the tougher aspects of one of the nation's overriding social issues the candidates have also avoided resorting to the divisive, racially lTC charged tactics that marked the 1988 campaign.

The most infamous example was the "Willie Horton" ad used in support of Mr. Bush, which sought to frighten voters with the image of a dangerous black man on the loose. This time there has been only a glimmer or two of such tactics, and each has been quickly snuffed out.

For example, Bush partisans in Alabama handed out literature this year featuring a photo of Mr. Clinton and his family onstage at the Democratic National Convention alongside 12-year-old black singer Reggie Jackson. The flier asked voters whether they could "handle this family as First Family." Regional Republican bigwigs quickly apologized.

"Willie Horton got to be a negative symbol, a symbol of irresponsible campaigning and dividing people," Ms. Weir said.

Desperation could yet push Mr. Bush into returning to such tactics, she said, but that is unlikely because "the idea that a candidate can be punished for that is now out there."

Ron Walters, a political scientist at Howard University, questions the assumption that white suburban voters don't want to be challenged on the issue of race.

That assumption, he said, is that suburban voters still feel insulated from the problems of the cities. But daily reports of urban-style crimes in the suburbs -- such as the recent wave of carjackings -- make urban problems and racial misunderstanding issues that suburban voters should be confronted with.

"There is no getting away from the problem, and I think the message one can craft is to show the fundamental interrelationship with all these other issues," Mr. Walters said.

Mr. Bradley agrees.

"People have to understand that the fear [of random crimes, urban violence] is not confined to white America. The situation should not allow us to draw a circle around an area and say our fears come from people inside the circle. As the Los Angeles disorders reminded us, the circle ultimately includes all of us."

Mr. Bradley has taken that approach, arguing that whites who feel cut off from the problem ignore it at their peril.

"By the year 2000," he said in a Senate speech, "only 57 percent of people entering the work force will be native-born whites. White Americans have to understand that their children's standard of living is inextricably bound to the future of millions of non-white children."

But don't expect Mr. Bush to address the problem head-on, said Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina.

"George Bush is not looking for those votes. He is not expecting those votes, so it is not a part of what he is talking about. The Republican convention certainly didn't show them as the all-encompassing party," he said.

As for Mr. Clinton, who is trying not to fritter away a comfortable lead in the polls, such an appeal would be too politically risky, Mr. Beyle said.

"I think it is such a 'wedge' issue that you open the door at your peril, and it is something the Republicans would jump on in a heartbeat," he said.

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