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In Midwest Battlegrounds, Dole Has Blue-Collar Blues

March 18, 1996

TAYLOR, Mich. (AP) _ Elmer Gauvin doesn’t begrudge Bob Dole his spring celebration, but he has a sobering message for the GOP standard-bearer: ``This is Clinton country.″

Hearing that, Larry Morin feels compelled to chime in. ``I voted for Reagan twice and I’m not about to make that mistake again,″ says the semiretired engineer. ``The Republican Party is not for the common man.″

It is a long way, of course, from March to November. But as Dole looks beyond Tuesday’s Midwest primaries to the fall contest with President Clinton, there are troubling signs for him in places like Taylor, a blue-collar bastion outside Detroit.

Here, and in like-minded working class suburbs, many voters earned the nickname Reagan Democrats by crossing over to vote Republican in the 1980s. As they look ahead to November, many of these voters say they are back in the Democratic fold _ and planning to support President Clinton.

``Republicans _ all they want to do is take care of the rich,″ said Gauvin, taking a break from helping his son’s Boy Scout troop sell pretzels to raise money for summer camp. ``Clinton is in there trying to fight for us.″

In two dozen weekend interviews here, and in recent conversations in other Midwestern battleground states, few blue-collar workers shared Gauvin’s unbridled enthusiasm for Clinton. Indeed, many are still stung by Clinton’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was vigorously opposed by organized labor.

``I think Clinton betrayed the unions,″ said Dean Rabe, a 30-year United Auto Workers member in Illinois. Still, faced with a Dole-Clinton choice, ``I’ll probably have to go with Clinton,″ Rabe said.

Dole will have a hard time winning if this sentiment carries into November.

To succeed statewide, a Republican must make inroads in Detroit’s working class suburbs, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984 and as GOP Gov. John Engler did in 1990 and 1994. Engler, for example, got 60 percent of the vote in Taylor even as an equal number voted Democrat for Congress.

But as Dole angles for support this year, one giant obstacle is sentiment left over from last year’s budget debates.

Florence Felong, for example, supported George Bush four years ago, because ``I generally trust the Republicans for president and I didn’t like Clinton’s morals.″

But she says Clinton is likely to get her vote this time, in part because, at 74, she questions whether the 72-year-old Dole has the stamina for the job.

But it’s more than that. Her sister is confined to a nursing home, and Felong worries that she, too, might end up there.

``Gingrich and those Republicans want to mess with Medicare,″ she said. ``I don’t care much for Clinton, but I don’t think we have much of a choice.″

Becky Cress, too, says Clinton is likely to get her vote _ ``as the lesser of two evils. Or three evils.″

She is a computer programmer and ``upper middle class″ mother of three young girls, a registered Democrat in suburban Bloomfield Hills.

Two years ago, she crossed party lines to support Engler’s re-election, because of tax cuts and welfare reform. In 1992, she voted for Ross Perot because ``I was disgusted with politics.″ But she says she would be embarrassed to vote for the Texas businessman again.

``Have I been helped by Clinton? No,″ she says. ``But I haven’t been hurt. And I don’t get the sense of what Dole is all about.″

She, too, volunteered concerns about House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying, ``these guys are a little too harsh for me.″

There was little doubt that Dole’s work as Senate majority leader, and close cooperation with Gingrich, has hurt him among blue-collar voters who view the Republican Congress as friendly to the rich and indifferent, if not unfair, to the working class.

``Clinton convinced them Republicans were being mean about Medicare and Medicaid and that has stuck,″ said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. ``For Dole to win he has to change the subject to taxes and spending and maybe welfare.″

Dole is trying to do just that, noting at every stop these days that Clinton has twice vetoed GOP welfare plans. And he refers to the slowing economy as ``the Clinton crunch,″ hoping to steer middle class economic angst to the incumbent.

But as he makes his pitch, Dole would be wise to learn something from the blue-collar appeal of rival Pat Buchanan.

``I think we will have a recession probably soon,″ said Larry Lucas, an auto technician from Taylor. He is a registered Republican who thinks ``Clinton has a hard time with the truth.″ Yet while he would vote for Buchanan against Clinton, he said he would likely back Clinton over Dole.

``The Democrats seem to worry about guys like me more if we have a recession,″ he said.

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