Now is the autumn of our discontent Election: As the presidential vote nears, people who revealed last summer which issues are important to their lives say the candidates have let them down. Susan Baer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Greg Adams, the 37-year-old mayor of New Concord, Ohio, dutifully watched the presidential debates this fall - but with the remote control in his hand.

A conservative Republican, he found himself switching channels, frustrated that Bob Dole could not seem to get his message out, light any fires or get the "character" issues to stick to President Clinton.

He was also discouraged that the face-offs seemed mired in petty details and jibes rather than lofty, inspiring words and visions.

Like many others in this small all-American village - one of the towns and cities along U.S. 40 that Sun reporters visited last summer to talk with voters about their concerns - Adams has been turned off by, and disappointed with, the presidential campaign.

In follow-up conversations with dozens of those previously interviewed - from Denver to Atlantic City, N.J. - many voters say that the candidates failed to engage them, uplift them or address in any substantive way the issues that were important to them, such as jobs, welfare reform or quality of life.

These citizens express a striking degree of indifference to the race, with many independents, swing voters and undecided voters saying the GOP has failed to give them an appealing or superior alternative to Bill Clinton or a reason to shake up the status quo. Few will be going to the polls next week enthusiastically - or with the passion or even anger that sent them there in 1992 and 1994, when they cried out for change. Some, in fact, said they were too busy working on an addition to their home to pay attention.

Mostly, they will pull a lever with resignation, if they vote at all.

"This is the one presidential campaign that I've probably followed the least," says Doug Winner, 44, a Republican who is the middle school principal in New Concord, citing his lack of affection for the candidates.

"I lost interest."

He will vote for Dole, he says, but strictly out of party loyalty. "I have to think the Republican Party could have found a better candidate," he says.

"Dole comes off as somewhat fragile. His answers are clipped and short. He has this severe overtone. It's a pretty depressing picture."

In this tidy, Republican-leaning town - where bags of leaves now line the streets, a sign that the campaign season is drawing to a close - the residents said last summer that values and the country's moral fabric were important to them.

And that's why some, such as Doug Blaikie, a Republican, will be voting for Dole, even though Blaikie calls him "one of the worst public speakers I've ever heard" and does not believe he will win.

The Presbyterian minister and father of two young boys explains his intended vote: "I don't think this is an ethical administration. I don't think Bill Clinton is someone my children should look up to - or could look up to.

"I thought people would care about that. Maybe it really is true if people aren't hurting economically, they don't care about ethics. Times aren't as bad as they were four years ago. People just aren't angry."

That seems to be the case even here, where the questions about Clinton's ethics and character give voters pause, but not necessarily enough to overcome their current sense of economic comfort.

"We're all very self-centered," says Maggie Thomas, an independent voter who has decided to vote for Clinton, even though she has reservations about him.

In an explanation that sounds as if it could have been scripted by the Clinton campaign - and could be one of the keys to the president's lead in the polls - she says, "We're not in a war. The economy is good. Interest rates are down. The Dow hit an all-time high. What's not to like?"

Echoing her sentiments is Bruce Crutchfield, 49, a Republican who owns a real estate and insurance business and is leaning toward Clinton because the economy is doing well.

"I don't know if he's responsible or not, but it seems like things are going better than they were in the past," said Crutchfield, who voted for George Bush four years ago.

Neither he nor Thomas is sold on Dole's across-the-board 15 percent tax cut proposal.

"It won't work," says Thomas, who is concerned about the national debt that her children will inherit.

Jack Bogart, a Republican who owns a bed and breakfast, says, "I'd rather see drastic welfare reform rather than a tax cut. That's what's draining our country."

But Bogart, like others in this morally minded community that is the hometown of Democratic Sen. John Glenn, is voting for Dole because of what he calls the "integrity" issue.

The 48-year-old businessman said he thought Dole should have hit the trust and integrity issues harder in his debates. But, reflecting the quandary that Dole found himself in regarding such character attacks, he adds, "I hate for a candidate to be negative."

In fact, Winner, the school principal, said he didn't tune in to the final debate because of reports that Dole was planning to go on the offensive.

"I just didn't want to listen to that," he said.

A discouraged Mayor Adams believes there must have been some way for Dole to tackle such issues without appearing to get personal or nasty.

"I think somehow a distaste for negative campaigning tied itself to the character issue," he said. "And Bob Dole let it be that way."

A strong economy, fear of Congress

Spend a little time inside the head of undecided voter Steve Trammel, a Denver marketing manager, and you can watch the presidential campaign unfold like a tennis match.

Clinton, whom he voted for in 1992, "comes across as a politician willing to say whatever anyone wants to hear."

But Dole, says the Democrat, doesn't inspire confidence when it comes to the environment or social programs for the needy, and his tax-cutting plan "sounds like another campaign promise."

On the other hand, the 44-year-old father of two still "can't get over my Watergate experience," doesn't like what he hears about infusions of foreign money into Clinton's campaign and isn't sure he can trust the president.

The bottom line for the voter who says he is in "real conflict" this year? He's leaning toward Clinton.

For one thing, Trammel says, the economy in Denver is strong. Two weeks ago, in fact, he bought a new $157,000 house with three bedrooms and a two-car garage. The dog loves it.

But perhaps even more than that, he believes Clinton was able to "rein in" the Republican-led Congress and worries that the country would see "a much more radical dismantling of social programs without Clinton there as an executive check and balance on Congress."

Such sentiments, echoed by others, suggest that many Democratic and swing voters view Congress and House Speaker Newt Gingrich as somewhat fearsome and extreme - a perception Democratic Party leaders and the Clinton camp have tried to foster.

"Every time I heard something about what Congress was doing, I cringed," says Clinton supporter Rebecca Lamb, 41, of Golden, Colo. Lamb, the mother of two, is hard-pressed to offer any specific grievances with the 104th Congress, but she says she formed a negative opinion, perhaps even subconsciously, of the "Bob Dole/Newt Gingrich show."

But the impact of the GOP-led Congress on the presidential race cuts both ways.

Republican Jerry Mott, 43, of Golden, says he believes Dole has been "almost an embarrassment" on the campaign trail and for a time considered Ross Perot.

But he will vote for the former senator, he said, because the Republican Party has made a solid case for cutting back government and trying to balance the budget.

"Will they ever be able to do it? I don't know. But at least they feel that's the right thing to do."

Neither President Clinton nor Bob Dole has campaigned in this struggling Illinois of about 35,000 - not that it's up for grabs. Virtually all black and 90 percent Democratic, East St. Louis is poised to back Clinton.

"I will vote for Bill Clinton," says 22-year-old Sheila Davis, an unwed mother and AmeriCorps volunteer who hopes to earn tuition credit from her stint in the program. She reacted against Dole's debate-night needling of the president regarding AmeriCorps, a program Clinton started.

"He said if we were 'volunteers' why should we be paid," Davis says. "Look, it comes out to $3 an hour. I'm trying my best, and when Dole said that, I thought, 'He's not for education. He's not for me. Why should I be for him?' "

Clinton risked support from people in hard-pressed communities signing a welfare bill that requires recipients to work after two years - and puts many of the decisions in state capitals.

Liberals complained, but some of those working in the trenches with underprivileged kids say it sends the right signal.

"We just can't have generations of young people depending on that thing - on welfare," says Bob Shannon, a well-known local high school football coach.

"I grew up poor and my bootstraps were strong enough. I know that's not true in every case, but I'm a moderate - and I don't want [welfare] to be a way of life for these kids."

At the Republican convention in San Diego, Bob Dole scored points with conservatives when he took issue with the title of Hillary Clinton's book. He did not score points in East St. Louis.

"This is an African-American city and 'it takes a village' is an African proverb," says Diane Sonneman, a Catholic social worker who runs a reading program in housing projects here.

"People here were using that phrase before Hillary's book came out - and they didn't appreciate what Dole said. They didn't think it squared with his experiences after the war when people in his village - in Russell, Kan. - rallied behind him when he was wounded and needed help."

In one respect, the attitudes of voters here mirror those in more affluent cities along Route 40 - and in the rest of the nation: They want a campaign devoted to issues and solutions, not attack ads and insults.

"I haven't come to any conclusions about who to vote for yet," says 50-year-old Virgie Riddle, a grandmother who receives public assistance for three girls under her care.

"But I watched the debates and one thing impressed me: There wasn't a lot of slinging of mud. They talked about issues. I thought that was nice."

Carl M. Cannon Mary Frances Mason, 76, can't imagine handling the demands of the presidency at her age. Nor can she see Bob Dole, three years her junior, doing the job.

"I know what I used to be capable of and what I am capable of now, and there is a big difference," she says.

Mason spent most of her life near Cumberland, a city of 24,000 along U.S. 40 in the Appalachian foothills of Western Maryland, where she was first interviewed last summer. She recently moved to Annapolis to see more of her children.

She is voting for Clinton, in part, because he seems to be a man of their time, she says.

Mason's children are, like the president, baby boomers. They are busy raising their children and working jobs ranging from judge to kindergarten teacher.

"They are looking forward," she says. "With Bob Dole, that poor man, I see him as in my era.

"I see the world changing so rapidly, but I don't think he could possibly anticipate it."

Richard Arnold, conductor of the Mountain Thunder steam train that runs between Cumberland and Frostburg, made up his mind while watching the Republican convention.

Unlike Mason, Arnold saw Dole as having the energy and ability to do the job, "even though he doesn't seem to be able to get his message across."

Cumberland has a patriotic streak. Arnold, 55, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, says he can't vote for Clinton because the president avoided the draft.

"I can see that Vietnam wasn't the most correct thing we did, but still, when I got my notice, I didn't run," he says.

Al Bensley, 47, plans to vote for Clinton and thinks the president has steered a middle course over the past four years while supporting issues Bensley cares about.

A psychology professor at Frostburg State University, Bensley particularly likes Clinton's promise of a $1,500-a-year tax credit for families trying to put their children through college.

"He's moving toward balancing the budget at the same time he's showing some sensitivity to groups that need help and he's preaching responsibility," Bensley says. "I think he's saying all the right things."

On the other hand, Bensley says, Republicans have offered no bold initiatives except for a 15 percent income tax cut, which he calls "unrealistic."

As for Dole's recent attacks on Clinton's character, Bensley says: "I don't think [Clinton] is necessarily 'Mr. Clean,' but I haven't seen anything that is of the caliber of Watergate."

Frank Langfitt

Against the system, against Bob Dole

Howard County

Four months ago, Don Harrison was quick to complain about the big-city woes of crime, traffic and uncontrolled development crawling out Route 40 to his once-quiet corner of Howard County.

But a massive heart attack three weeks ago, followed by double-bypass surgery a week later, have changed his attitude on a few things: He has stopped smoking. He might take up fishing. And he's ready to swear off politics.

"I'm so disgusted with it now that I want a totally different system," says Harrison. "I want a third party, though I don't know if it will make any difference."

He sounds resigned to all the development that has overtaken his community in the past decade.

"What can you do? If there is a demand for it, really, honestly, what can you do?" he says.

"It just changes the lifestyle for somebody like me. But for the new people who move in, it's a perfect lifestyle."

Baltimoreans have been moving west out U.S. 40 into Howard County, in increasingly conservative and affluent waves, for more than 30 years.

The dream is to find the peace of the country with the convenience of the city, but many complain that the crime and traffic have followed them here. Few think politicians have the will or power to solve their most pressing concerns.

For Jonnie Widener, being a part-time nurse and full-time mother two hasn't left her much time to pay attention to the presidential race, though she has watched both televised debates and followed the race on National Public Radio.

Four months ago, Widener longed for the day when politicians were "statesmen" and not so partisan. And during the campaign, Bob Dole has struck her as a decent, honorable man. But he hasn't won her vote.

"The whole thing with Bob Dole's 15 percent across-the-board tax cut is insane," she says.

"Look what happened in the '80s. The rich people got richer. The middle class shrunk. More people went into poverty. What was so great about the '80s?"

And neither campaign has talked enough about the crucial issue of entitlements, which she says both parties need to help get under control. But despite reservations about Bill Clinton, Widener is ready to vote for him, or rather against Bob Dole.

"I'll probably end up voting for Clinton," Widener says, "because the idea of what the Republicans would do with a Republican president and a Republican Congress is just too awful to contemplate."

Craig Timberg Presidential debates? Campaign speeches? Character issues vs. foreign policy?

Well, if it isn't on the History or Discovery cable channels, Henry Zander couldn't care less about Bill Clinton or Bob Dole and next month's election. He'd rather investigate the madness of Adolf Hitler or appreciate the blinding speed of a cheetah on the hunt.

"I haven't changed my mind about the country's next president I am not voting," says Zander, 42, the manager of the Rt. 40 Truck Stop in White Marsh.

Zander works along Baltimore County's stretch of Route 40 called Pulaski Highway, a region that was once a thriving blue-collar area and now is on the decline after the loss of tens of thousands of industrial jobs over the past two decades.

Along that ribbon of motels and small businesses, disaffection with America's government is always just beneath the surface of everyday conversation.

"The entire system of electing anybody, from a county councilman to the president of the U.S., is all rhetoric," Zander says.

"These people will promise anything to manipulate the public. And once they get into office, it's rare where they'll do what they say."

"I don't care what women Clinton has been with; none of us is perfect," Zander says. "I care more about the pocketbook issues.

"How much of my hard-earned money is going to improve the quality of life? Dole, well, he's been a powerful force in the Senate for 35 years. He's a product of the same charade - say one thing, do another."

Anna Boeshore, the waitress at the Double-T Diner in Rosedale, said when she spoke in August about her distrust of the election and her refusal to vote, "somebody called up the diner and told me I should be shipped to Cuba."

"To me, taking part in an election, I mean voting, is like being in a play," says Boeshore, 60. "It's not that I'm lazy or apathetic. It's just that Clinton and Dole say different things but wind up doing what they want anyway."

Boeshore has worked her entire life but hasn't changed her mind: She still has little faith in the political system. The candidates: "They help the rich and the poor, and middle class get worse."

If Joe Piazza, a warehouse supervisor for Northeastern Plumbing and Heating Supply, were to vote, he'd cast his lot with Clinton. But like past elections, he'll stay away from the polls.

"Clinton just seems to be the lesser of two evils," says Piazza, a father of four children. "The other gentleman, you have to wonder if he knows what day it is."

Joe Nawrozki Twenty years ago, New Jersey residents rolled the dice at the ballot box and bet the future of this town on legalized gambling.

Gaming has brought billions to state coffers - and changed the face of Atlantic City - but in 1996 voters here do not appear to be in a risk-taking mood.

Asked which presidential candidate has best addressed his concerns, hotel manager George Kramvis replies, "Let's put it this way. I don't believe giving a 15 percent tax cut to everyone is going to solve the problem. I could use the money, but the country can't afford it."

Kramvis is leaning to Clinton, though he still admires Ross Perot.

He's hardly alone: Numerous people here say that in the wake of Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's state tax reductions they've learned to be wary of the siren song of tax cuts.

"My property taxes went up more than my state taxes went down," says Charles Fullerton, a 67-year-old retired phone company employee. "Dole's 15 percent cut sounds great, but you've got to pay for government."

Pawnshop owner Joseph Marto worries about what both parties would do to Medicare.

He says he realizes that the anti-Dole ads on Medicare aired by organized labor and the Clinton campaign are not the gospel, but adds, "My father is on Medicare and I go over his bills with him. They've already cut back on some things and are picking up less of the tab on others."

Before 1992, when Clinton narrowly carried New Jersey, the state had gone Republican in five straight presidential elections. This time, if the polls are accurate, he's poised to win it again - and by a comfortable margin.

"Clinton is doing well here," says Nicholas R. Amato, a casino industry official. "He's 20 points ahead in the polls, and when he came to Teaneck the other day he raised $800,000."

Amato has helped set up programs that train inner-city young people with troubled backgrounds for jobs in the casinos. He works with Jerome A. Kilbane, director of the Covenant House, which takes in abandoned youths.

A proud liberal, Kilbane is not happy with his choice this year. Although he's voting for Clinton, he is troubled by questions about the president's "moral fiber."

He also says neither candidate nor party is spending enough time discussing the problems of the urban poor.

"There's not too much difference between the Republican and Democratic parties," he says.

In fact, Kilbane says that when he closes his eyes and listens to the two sides speak, he fancies that they've changed hats.

"I heard Newt Gingrich on the radio, and he was talking about how in the 18th century this country had a more 'community-based' approach to welfare, which is what I think we need today," he says.

"And Clinton signed this welfare bill that I believe will make the problems worse. What are you going to do?"

Carl M. Cannon

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°