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In Naming Their Candidate, Many Voters Sigh, Grumble or Just Complain

September 28, 1996

ERIE, Pa. (AP) _ Tony DiEugenio would rather talk about Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. ``There’s no one in politics to make you proud anymore,″ is his lament.

A few doors down, Lisa is already piqued, swatting away the swarming bees that complicate the work of a courtyard restaurant waitress. Talk of presidential politics only makes things worse.

``I hate Clinton. He doesn’t know how to tell the truth,″ the 35-year-old single mother says as the lunchtime crowd dwindles. ``But what is my choice? I’m not voting for Perot again. Bob Dole? Come on. Too old.″ She refuses to give her last name, and admits her distrust extends far beyond the politicians.

And so it goes, not only here in Erie but in town after town during a week spent visiting four industrial states critical in presidential elections: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio.

In five weeks, voters will pick the last president of the 20th century, and the man who will sit in the Oval Office at the dawn of the 21st. Yet, if dozens of random interviews this past week are any guide, the voters are a largely disinterested, often frustrated, and sometimes grumpy lot, quick to complain about the quality of their choices and the tone of this year’s campaign, if they have paid any attention to it.

``Who cares?″ said DiEugenio, rolling his eyes as he sewed a new sole on a loafer in his downtown Erie shop.

Four years ago, Clinton was a fresh face and Ross Perot a mini-phenomenon as voters tired of a sluggish economy turned out in record numbers and denied President Bush a second term. ``I remember it being exciting,″ said Jenny Hatcher, an insurance company secretary in suburban St. Louis.

Now 21, Hatcher can vote in her first presidential election. But she hasn’t registered. ``I guess I should because I don’t like Clinton,″ she said. ``I’m just not into it. None of them excite me.″

Weak participation in this year’s primaries, and the disinterest voiced in voter interviews and dozens of state and national polls, has many campaign operatives and analysts predicting a low turnout. While many voters are somewhat apologetic that they have not followed the campaign closely, most say the candidates shoulder the blame.

``Why all the bashing?″ asks Kim Rickard, a bank worker in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Mo. ``Don’t any of them have anything positive to say?″

Like many 1992 Clinton backers, she said she was likely to support him again. But she seemed resigned to doing so, not enthusiastic about it. Like Lisa in Erie and Adele Rubenstein in Royal Oak, Mich., Rickard is full of doubts about Clinton but not convinced Dole is an acceptable alternative.

``The lesser of two evils still seems to be Clinton,″ said Rubenstein, who manages a shoe store. She calls Dole’s plan to cut taxes by 15 percent unrealistic and, while wincing when talking about Clinton’s morals, she says, ``I believe in his heart of hearts he wants to make valuable changes.″

Her views are a snapshot of a conflicted electorate: Voters have serious misgivings about Clinton’s character, questioning his personal morals and honesty, and whether he has any core political principles. ``It doesn’t necessarily mean that Dole can catch up easily, but Clinton’s support is not deep,″ said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.

Yet many who raise these worries also say they will vote to re-elect Clinton, on grounds he has better ideas than Dole or is more in tune with their everyday concerns.

The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that Dole had a 2-to-1 advantage over Clinton when voters were asked which candidate was more honest, and Dole had a 30-point edge when voters were asked which candidate has higher ethical and moral values. Dole led handily as well when voters were asked which candidate stuck by his beliefs. Yet voters believed by 46 percent to 39 percent that Dole is a bigger risk.

``Clinton wins the warm and personal elements. Dole wins the professional elements,″ said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. ``I think Dole has elements that people respect but he is having trouble turning that into votes.″

Lisa, the Erie waitress, is a case in point.

She has been off welfare for nearly a year but still gets subsidized housing and day care. For all her personal qualms with Clinton, she views Dole and his Republican Party as a threat to those services, ``and if I have to work two jobs I will never see my son.″

Two years ago, a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters helped Republicans seize control of Congress. This year, it is Republicans worrying about a unmotivated electorate.

``I just don’t feel he has done much,″ was the assessment of Clinton offered by Gale Tsai, a recent college graduate looking for a job in financial services. But the 73-year-old Dole hasn’t wowed the younger generation, either.

``Probably Dole if I vote,″ said Tsai. ``But my interest in the campaign is not that great.″

DiEugenio, the Erie cobbler, has 50 years on Tsai, and is leaning toward Clinton ``though I wish he would have some guts like Truman.″ But though years and miles apart, the two share a common political bond.

``I just don’t feel like what happens will make any difference in my life,″ DiEugenio said. ``That’s too bad. But that’s how I feel.″

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