Big-time politics, little-town pundits Conservative voters in Thurmont sharpen their views over lunch; CAMPAIGN 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THURMONT -- Bob Dole trails substantially and there is talk of voters turning their backs on the Republican "revolution" in Congress, but at the Shamrock Restaurant, political conservatism flares like the brightest autumn foliage.

Every Friday for the past decade, at lunchtime, six or more longtime residents of this Catoctin Mountain community gather under a phalanx of splendidly antlered deer heads for a passionate dialogue on the state of American life -- particularly its politics.

Over "The Usual" -- a bowl of clam chowder and a bacon cheeseburger -- or perhaps the fish sandwich called "The Jona's Whale," these men sharpen their criticisms of what they see as a society in decline. Barbs are launched at parents and local leaders as well as liberals, the media -- and each other.

They sit in a corner of the Shamrock's bar lest an occasional guffaw or ribald observation disturb someone. They constitute a sort of permanent Frederick County focus group, and they seem wholly representative of their still-rural but rapidly developing county.

Their musings parallel similar conversations all over Maryland as voters of various political views sort through the issues and personalities of Campaign '96 -- a civic exercise that has at times brought admissions of bafflement from those who claim to understand the nation's mood. The Sun will listen in on some of these informal seminars over the two weeks left before Election Day.

The Shamrock crew finds the Republican Party guilty, once again, of fielding a candidate whose campaign style makes them wonder if he really wants to win. They felt similarly about former President George Bush when he lost to Bill Clinton four years ago.

They come for the comradeship, for the comfort of shared views and for the affirmation of home truths. They have earned their pontifications by succeeding in business, by serving on town or county councils, by volunteering and even by writing a newspaper column.

The regulars include Sterling Bollinger, a businessman and former Frederick County commissioner; John Ashbury, a columnist for the Glade Times & Mountain Mirror and a real estate manager; Mike Fitzgerald, a reader of rightward-leaning tracts and owner of the restaurant; Paul Fox, a retired manufacturer, the needling "liberal" -- who only seems to be left-leaning because he wouldn't support certain Republicans for president, including Bob Dole; Russell Delauter, a Thurmont contractor who spends much of his time now attending to chores at his church; and Calvin Sailor, a retired clothing manufacturer.

When they sit down, every possible subject is on the table.

Problems with the state's new lottery computers.

Spitting baseball players.

Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"By God, we didn't elect her," says Fitzgerald.

"She tried to get into things where she had no business," said Delauter.

Fox, the "liberal," translates: "They just don't like a smart woman."

All of that is warm-up for Topic A, the race for president.

"The undecideds will be strong for the Republicans," Delauter says. "I don't know if there's enough to get it done, but I think four of five will be for him."

Fox thinks Delauter's poll sample as well as his political science are flawed.

"You don't talk to anybody but Republicans," he says, adding a dose of political science: "Undecideds tend to go with the incumbent. They go with the tried and true."

Realtor-columnist Ashbury can't believe what he's hearing.

"What about Clinton? How can anyone dismiss his peccadilloes?"

"I don't know if any of that stuff actually happened," Fox says.

"He lied to you," says Ashbury.

"He didn't lie to me," Fox says.

They are resigned, they say, to a campaign in which the so-called "trust" or "character" issues have had little salience.

"It all rolls off the public's back," says Fitzpatrick. "Twenty years ago that would have hung Clinton. But morals have gone down so far."

How, they were asked, do they deal with Dole's rebirth as a tax cutter? Are they concerned about a candidate who embraces so-called supply-side economic strategies he derisively rejected for 30 years as a U.S. senator?

"I don't believe in politicians lying," Delauter answered, "and I don't think he did lie. But I do think he had to get something that would really get the attention of the American people."

Why hasn't the tax cut strategy worked so far? they were asked.

"The national media pooh-poohed it," Ashbury says.

"That's not their fault," says Delauter. "He should push that thing down the American people's throat until they buy it. He has to sell that thing and he hasn't sold it. I'm going to vote for it and he hasn't sold me on it."

In their community, the economy has offered little opportunity for Dole.

"People in Thurmont are not hurting," says Bollinger, who runs a small store on Route 15 just outside of town. "Down here in our little market we're better off. We're above last year."

They wonder if American society is less troubled with lapses in official conduct because outrageous behavior or allegations of it have become commonplace -- in newspapers, on television and on talk shows.

"We have so many problems," Fox says with a wink, " kids kissing kids."

"The bureaucrats have taken over our society is what we've done," Fitzgerald says. "It's a continuation of what Hillary wants to do with [her book] 'It Takes A Village.' Get control of those kids. That's the root of it."

If that were the purpose, they said, government was doing its usual best to confuse and confound. If government wants to control the kissing of 6-year-olds, surely it will want to accelerate its control of other activities.

Delauter tells the story of a Thurmont father who took his belt to a drug-taking son -- and found himself on court-ordered probation for his trouble.

"If corporal punishment was outlawed when I was a kid," he reckons, "my mother would have been hung before she was 25 years old."

If all of that reflected badly on politicians, former Commissioner Bollinger offers some perspective.

"You blame the politicians, but who should you really blame? The parents."

Delauter concurs: "When it affects one of us, we're all up in the air in outrage. When it doesn't, we're out there like do-gooders."

The unwillingness of people to take their medicine, these men agreed, is illustrated by the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Elected to prune government, he is now pilloried for keeping his promises.

"Gingrich has done nothing to be in trouble for," Bollinger says. Much of what he proposed is now law, after all, signed by the president.

Bollinger wants to talk about another bit of needed pruning, Social Security.

"You're going to jump on me," he says, "but there has to be something done with Social Security system.

"I disagree because this sounds like a Democratic deal to me. There is no way that you and I don't need our Social Security," says Delauter.

Delauter recoils from the big-government view that someone in Washington could ever know how to handle problems in places like Thurmont.

"I took $59 out of my pocket to buy a hose for the vacuum cleaner at the church. I can take that $59 and give it to the church. I'm not going to take that $59 and give it to Bill Clinton or Bob Dole or anyone else. I'll spend it where I want to spend it."

No less conservative, but uncomfortable with labels of any kind, Bollinger asks for a little practicality.

"There is a small percentage of people who would do exactly what you're saying -- save. But the largest percentage of people will not. Thank God for Social Security. Thank God for unemployment. Let me tell you this country would be in a hell of a shape without them."

The conversation returns to the Nov. 5 election.

Keep hope alive could be their mantra.

"I look for a late charge from Dole," says Delauter.

"Clinton is going down, down and down," says Ashbury.

"Dreamin', dreamin', dreamin'," says Fox.

Pub Date: 10/21/96

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