Jobs, economy are the main issues in New Hampshire On Politics Today

JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CONCORD, N. H. — Concord, N.H. THE SCENE at the meeting here the other night of the Career Network and Support Group for the Unemployed was much like a standard meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous -- but without any reference to swearing off booze.

Peter Pollett, a strapping, graying man who was presiding, reported to the group about a few of its members who had beaten their particular curse -- lack of a job. He told where they had found work and for how many hours doing what, and his listeners applauded the good fortune of the lucky brethren. Then Pollett told of a few other job openings and invited applicants to apply.

The meeting was a sign of the dismal times here in New Hampshire as the state's voters prepare for the Christmas holidays and a host of presidential candidates gear up for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary on Feb. 18.

Joblessness and the state of the economy have already put a crimp on holiday spirits, and what the candidates intend to do about it crowds out all other voter concerns.

Although the unemployment rate of 6.6 percent is still below the national average, it is far higher than the 2 percent enjoyed here in the mid-1980s, and people clearly are worried.

At this particular meeting, the featured speaker was Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who told the support group members that the nation's biggest challenge, with the Cold War over, was to "put Americans back to work" and raise their standard of living.

But Kerrey, spelling out what he would do first as president, sounded like Jimmy Carter here in 1976, when he talked about reducing the federal bureaucracy from 1,900 agencies to 200 (a promise he never delivered on). What he would do, Kerrey said, was cut the number of cabinet departments from 14 to seven. The audience of the jobless seemed underwhelmed at that idea of coping with their dilemma.

Kerrey then talked about his proposal for a drastic revamping of the nation's health-care system, the centerpiece of his campaign so far. Governments at all levels have been obliged to cut back because of the rising cost of health care, he said, and by getting a handle on these costs the country would be much better able to deal with its other problems at home. At one point he called health-care reform "a powerful economic engine" that would help put people back to work.

One questioner seemed unsatisfied with such answers. She wanted to know what Kerrey would do about the homeless and the lack of housing for them. Kerrey offered rather lamely that he had no plan for alleviating the plight of the homeless, but that it was "wrong" that this country had them. What was needed for openers, he said, was for people to recognize and say it was wrong for others to be homeless.

Pressed to say what job creation initiatives he had in mind,

Kerrey observed that it was possible to "jump-start the economy at the margins" with tax cuts, but that health care reform was "the most powerful economic engine."

Kerrey left the impression, at this one meeting anyway, that he is having trouble sounding like more than a one-issue candidate, even at a meeting of voters focused desperately on their need for employment in a state bogged down in recession.

Being a one-issue candidate in New Hampshire is probably OK as long as that issue is joblessness and the economy or is readily seen by the voters to be related to that problem. Kathi Rogers, state campaign manager for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, says voters she and her candidate have encountered since the summer have very little else on their minds.

In other years, Rogers says, women's groups, labor unions, environmentalists and peace groups all were wrapped up in their own special interests, but now "they all want to hear (what Harkin intends to do) about the economy."

The focus is being further intensified in New Hampshire by the new challenge to President Bush in the Republican primary from columnist and television commentator Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan has already called on Bush to come to the state to see whether the country is still in a recession or not.

Meanwhile, the Career Network and Support Group for the Unemployed here is very much in business, so to speak, and the candidates who are talking about that grim business are probably on the right wavelength.

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