Struggle for swing votes


Donna Rickert may be a Democrat, but she should be a natural target for George W. Bush. She's against abortion and has often voted for Republicans - among them Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, former President George Bush.

Come November, however, Rickert will be voting for Democrat Al Gore.

"He seems to be a family man, and I like his wife very much," says Rickert, 53, relaxing one afternoon on the front porch of her sturdy brick home in the heart of Glen Burnie.

As for the younger Bush? "I just don't like him," says Rickert, who works for Goodwill Industries sorting donations. "I can't put my finger on why."

Though polls suggest that Bush has little chance of winning heavily Democratic Maryland, he should be doing well in places like Glen Burnie - generally conservative, suburban strongholds filled with working- and middle-class voters who may be listed as Democrats, yet routinely vote Republican.

But dozens of interviews in the area suggest that the Texas governor has failed to generate much enthusiasm among conservative Democrats.

Indeed, seven weeks from the election, Bush remains largely unknown to these voters. His record in Texas, details about his family, his religious convictions and many of his campaign proposals are fuzzy.

At least for now, many people appear to be treating the election as something of a referendum on President Clinton and his loyal vice president.

For voters such as Neil Williams, that makes it an easy choice.

"Gore wouldn't know the truth if someone hit him over the head with it," says Williams, a retired Maryland State Police officer who interrupted his eggs and pancakes at a local diner one morning last week to talk politics.

But even Williams, a Democrat in name only, had little positive to offer about Bush except to say he was "more sincere" than the vice president.

"I haven't heard anything that really turns me off as far as Bush is concerned," Williams says.

A community of modest houses that took root after World War II, Glen Burnie grew haphazardly along its spine, Ritchie Highway, which is now fronted by miles of fast-food restaurants, car dealers and strip malls.

While residents worry about crime, by most accounts the area is thriving, a "Help Wanted" sign in the window of seemingly every storefront.

Like most of Maryland, the area is heavily Democratic - at least in voter registration records.

But many voters in the area register as Democrats for reasons other than ideology. Their parents were Democrats, for example. Or they figure that in a state dominated by Democrats, the party's primaries offer more voting action.

That makes places such as Glen Burnie ripe for Republicans with the right message. Bob Dole carried much of the area in 1996 against Clinton - although Dole lost badly overall in Maryland - and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey did well in both of her gubernatorial bids.

In several recent national polls, Gore has opened a small lead, although analysts caution that the race is far from decided. Those polls show that Bush is not doing as well as he might hope with moderate voters and conservative Democrats.

"When it comes down to it, people don't really know George Bush and don't have a lot of confidence in him," says state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a moderate Democrat who represents the northeast corner of Anne Arundel County, including Glen Burnie and Pasadena.

"People are working. The unemployment rate is down," Jimeno says. "I don't think people are willing to take a chance on Bush."

That's the sentiment of several voters interviewed last week.

"They got it going now, so you might as well stick with it," says Bryan Lipford, a 28-year-old garage door mechanic from Glen Burnie grabbing an early lunch on a slow work day.

Republican leaders in Maryland acknowledge they must do a better job of selling Bush on his own merits - not just campaigning for him as an antidote to Clinton and Gore.

"We can't win this election by just criticizing Bill Clinton constantly," says Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "We must show the differences between Al Gore and George Bush."

Bennett also conceded that the Bush camp must do more to connect with working-class voters.

"Our task," Bennett adds, "is to reach out to independents and conservative Democrats in Glen Burnie, for example, to make clear that Bush cares about education and other issues important to them."

That effort could well target voters such as Pat Amend, a 47-year-old housewife in Pasadena. A Democrat who supports abortion rights and gun control, Amend voted for Reagan and twice voted for Sauerbrey.

In this election, Amend says she'll be voting for Gore, noting in particular his stand on helping the elderly pay for prescription drugs, an issue the vice president championed early in the campaign.

"I don't have much of an impression of Bush," the mother of two sons says, adding that she knew little about his plan for a prescription-drug benefit.

Republican attacks on Gore for his support of Clinton through the impeachment proceedings don't sit well with her.

"Gore's his vice president," Amend says. "He has to stay beside him."

Still undecided

Al Tenneson, a Pasadena Republican who owns a marina, declares himself on the fence. He's leaning toward Bush, but doesn't sound too enthusiastic.

"I just haven't decided on what I think of him yet," Tenneson says. "I don't know quite what to make of him."

Tenneson, 50, says he's starting to warm up to Gore after reading some articles and seeing him on television.

"He's not as straitlaced as he seemed," Tenneson says. "Unfortunately, Gore has been cast in Clinton's shadow a little bit. I don't know if that's fair or not."

Fair or not, Mike Cromer links Gore tightly to Clinton. Cromer, 43, owns a sports trophy business in Glen Burnie and has had enough of the Clinton-Gore team.

"The lies and deceit have gone too far," says Cromer, a Republican. But he worries that Bush, in running as a "compassionate conservative," is turning off some of his supporters on the right.

"He's losing his base," Cromer says. "He's trying to make everybody happy."

Gore, meanwhile, appears to be shoring up support from traditional Democrats in the Glen Burnie area.

"I don't like either one of them personally, but I think Gore will be more for the working man," says Bill Johnson, 45, a Pasadena Democrat who works as a dishwasher. "This other guy, I don't think he cares about working people."

Adds Mack Johnson, a 68-year-old truck driver killing time at Lucky's Superette after working the night shift: "A working man who wants to be a Republican is a crazy fool."

If many voters don't have much of a feel for Bush, they do tend to have feelings about the fact that he is the son of a former president.

Dave Lewis, a Defense Department employee from Pasadena and a Democrat who routinely votes for Republicans, says Bush seems to have strong convictions - unlike Gore - and hopes the younger Bush will take after his old man.

"If he's anything like his father, that's good," says the 53-year-old Lewis.

Other voters seem to resent Bush's privileged background - apparently oblivious to Gore's political lineage.

"His parents got money, and he thinks he knows it all," Marie Saumenig, 82, says of Bush.

Adds Rickert, the Goodwill employee: "I don't know how much money Clinton had when he started out, but I know Bush had plenty. I'm for the poor people."

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