Clinton takes economics show on the road through unreceptive South


ATLANTA -- Unable to capture the spotlight in Washington while the Republican revolution rolls through Congress, President Clinton opened a road show here yesterday in the capital of the South.

The declared purpose of his visit was to conduct a daylong conference at Emory University on the Southern economy, but the underlying motive was an effort to help boost Mr. Clinton's popularity.

"I think, right now, President Clinton would lose every Southern state and would be close only in Arkansas," said Merle Black, a noted regional political analyst at Emory.

White voters alienated by what they see as Mr. Clinton's big-government policies and alleged character flaws are swinging the entire South firmly behind Republicans, political analysts say.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Clinton's essential message yesterday was stark in its simplicity: The South's economy is booming, and I deserve credit. And while problems remain, I have tailor-made solutions.

The president never delivered his message that directly. But it was the unmistakable theme, and clearly the one the White House hopes to hammer home in an elaborate public relations blitz across the region.

Mr. Clinton based his 1992 campaign largely on a promise to focus on the then-ailing U.S. economy "like a laser beam." And since his election, the U.S. economy has rebounded smartly, with no region thriving more than the South.

Yet to his great frustration, Mr. Clinton has gotten little credit. The Atlanta conference was the first step of a campaign that White House aides hope will correct that.

As Mr. Clinton's economics show was winning saturation coverage yesterday from the Atlanta news media -- whose influence extends broadly across the South -- nine of his Cabinet officers and 20 other senior officials fanned out to tout the administration's economic policies from Raleigh, N.C., to Dallas.

This Southern production is only the first act in a national road show planned by the White House. Over the next six months, Mr. Clinton intends to lead similar all-day conferences on the regional economies of the Northeast, the Midwest and the West, as well as one on rural America in Iowa on April 25.

Each of these talk-a-thons is to be modeled on the one that Mr. Clinton held in Little Rock, Ark., in December 1992.

As there, Mr. Clinton served here as moderator for three two-hour, panel discussions featuring some two dozen regional leaders from business, labor, education and academia. They were joined by a sprinkling of ordinary workers, whose personal tales illustrated the sometimes abstract themes of the day.

As he has in virtually every speech he's given since last summer, Mr. Clinton bragged of having cut the federal deficit, red tape and bureaucracy. He boasted of America's economic rebound on his watch. And while acknowledging that problems remain -- such as stagnating wages and persistent poverty -- the president and his panelists agreed that Clinton policies such as investing in education and promoting foreign trade offer the best answers.

"He can talk till he's blue in the face, but a lot of them have got a mute button on him," Mr. Black said. "The reservations [about Clinton] have to do with the perception of him as a big-government liberal in his heart of hearts. . . . They're not going to buy that he's responsible for the strength of the economy. They think he's irrelevant to that."

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens, also dismissed the Atlanta conference's political potential: "I think it'll come through pretty quickly and disappear pretty quickly, like a summer thunderstorm."

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