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In Heart Of Reagan Democrat Country, A Yearning For Change

March 16, 1992

WARREN, Mich. (AP) _ Erna Gilbertson was bragging about how she convinced her husband to vote for Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 when he leaned back in his chair, winked, and sheepishly shook his head.

Walter Gilbertson, once an ″Adlai Stevenson Democrat,″ says he voted for Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter - and then Ronald Reagan, never mind what his wife says, and George Bush.

He doesn’t like the label, but Gilbertson is a Reagan Democrat - one of those folks who mostly vote for Democrats but defect every four years to pick a Republican in the presidential race.

″It just seems the Democrats got lost there for awhile,″ the retiree says. ″I like to think of myself as a Democrat, but I can go either way.″

It was in 97-percent white, largely ethnic Macomb County that the Democratic Party first took time to study disaffected or Reagan Democrats. The county is a favorite laboratory for Democrats trying to craft a message that will win back the White House.

In theory, as Macomb County votes, so vote the suburban, middle-class Americans across the country who are the swing voters in presidential elections.

Interviews with two dozen Macomb County residents in advance of Tuesday’s presidential primary offer ample evidence of a turbulent and testy electorate that has little taste for President Bush’s handling of the economy and nagging doubts about the men who want to replace him.

Most of all, they’re not sure anyone is really listening to them.

Ask 28-year Chrysler worker Ed Sosnowski what the issues ought to be in this year’s election and he doesn’t hesitate.

″Everything George Bush said he was going to be but isn’t,″ said Sosnowski, putting the economy, education, environmental protection and national health care high on his list.

″The American dream - that’s gone now,″ Sosnowski said. ″You used to be able to go to one of the local factories and make a decent living.″

He won’t get any argument from Bob Culhane, a retiree who labels himself an independent.

″The need to change is so apparent,″ said Culhane. ″People are starting to think of government as unreliable, as ineffective or worse as half crooked.″

Such suspicion and cynicism was shared by many of those interviewed. Although few had kind words for Bush, still fewer had anything nice to say about Congress.

Culhane says he’s likely to reluctantly vote for President Bush again. Yet he felt compelled to come hear Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton speak at Macomb County Community College because of one word he had heard in a Clinton speech - change.

″If he can convince me he can really bring about this change he talks about I might go for him,″ Culhane said of the Democratic front-runner.

Clinton has carefully crafted his message to appeal to the middle class, and random interviews provided evidence he’s having some success.

Even among those who were leaning toward a Bush vote in the fall, Clinton was overwhelmingly the choice when people were asked which Democrat they might support.

The interviews also offered evidence of Paul Tsongas’ troubles connecting with the blue-collar middle class, people like those who live in the neatly lined brick houses of Warren a few miles from Detroit.

″He’s a little bit too pro-business,″ said Sosnowski.

″I just question his ability to communicate,″ said Clem Garrett, a retired former Army officer. ″It seems to me that with every breath he is struggling. I shouldn’t hold this against him but what makes the world work is communication and charisma.″

Many residents also voiced support for the middle-class tax cut that Clinton supports and Tsongas opposes - even though they often said it would make little difference in their lives.

″I sure could use it,″ said Mary Jane Amicarelli, who publishes high school and college yearbooks.

Others dismissed the importance of the tax cut.

″It’s just a drop in the bucket, really,″ said Shirley Simpson of St. Clair Shores.

The key question in Macomb County this year is whether Reagan and Bush voters will come home to the Democratic Party.

Elaine Vitale says she will.

″He’s just killing companies by not caring,″ said Vitale, who blames Bush for the loss of her secretarial job at General Motors Corp.

Culhane spoke for many, however, in saying: ″I just don’t know.″

He said he knew too little about the Democratic candidates to make his decision right now - so he’ll sit out Tuesday’s primary.

″I think we’re a fair people and come November will vote for the best among them,″ Culhane said.

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