Rank-and-file Democrats still seem to be looking

March 17, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- Tony Fanelli, who operates a small coffee shop here, is one of those Democrats having a hard time coming to grips with the presidential election campaign.

"I'm not going to vote for George Bush again, I can tell you that," he said, gesturing emphatically. "Business has been lousy with the Republicans. But it's probably just me making a point, like a gesture, because none of these guys can beat him. They're a bunch of Humptys."

In a suburb of Atlanta two weeks earlier, Marianne Reeves, a sales manager for a cosmetics company, had said much the same thing. "I've got two kids to support, and I'm worried about my job. Bush has made such a mess, but what can we do? The Democrats haven't got anybody any better. I never even heard of these people till last week."

And a few days later in North Miami Beach, Fla., Sadie Kauffman, a 78-year-old widow, was quintessentially skeptical: "They tell me vote for [Bill] Clinton, he's a good man; vote for this [Paul] Tsongas, he's a good man; but what do I know? I don't [know] from any of them. They're just names in the paper. We're stuck with that Bush again; let's face the true facts."

These are three very different people. What they have in common is that they are all Democrats not involved in the campaign who don't like George Bush but have no faith in the Democratic Party's ability to produce a winning candidate against him.

And there seem to be many others like Tony Fanelli and Marianne Reeves and Sadie Kauffman. Random interviews with more than 50 Democrats in three communities produced a pervasive pessimism about both the current field of candidates and the prospect of winning in November.

There are at least two objective indicators supporting this view. Except in New Hampshire, the turnout in Democratic primaries and caucuses has been consistently below that of four years ago, suggesting a lack of interest in the campaign. Second, polls continue to show about half of the Democrats saying they would like to see other candidates in the field.

To a degree, this phenomenon may simply be a product of the fact that the 1992 campaign started months later than usual and, except in New Hampshire, has rushed the candidates into each state for a few days of perfunctory campaigning before the primary or caucus.

But the Democrats also are paying a price for having a field of candidates so little-known outside the political community. "They come to us and ask for our votes," said a welder here named George Mareghian, "but we don't know anything about them. What the hell, all I hear is about Clinton did this and that, but I can't tell if he's telling the truth or stringing us along. He's some nobody I never even heard of until just now."

These non-activist Democrats also are confused by the absence of the usual list of issues to use in sorting out the candidates. This year it is suddenly all right for Democratic candidates to tTC support the death penalty and oppose gun control so long as they are in favor of creating jobs. And their differences on the economy have not been clearly delineated. "I hear Clinton and Tsongas arguing about how to fix things," said pharmacist Abe Sofauer in Miami, "but it all sounds pretty much the same to me. [Tom] Harkin was different, I guess, but he was off the wall."

Unsurprisingly, the lack of familiarity with the candidates reflects limited enthusiasm for any of them. "I could have gone all out for [Richard] Gephardt or even [Mario] Cuomo," said Rennie Stinson, a computer repairman in Atlanta, "but I can't get excited about Clinton or this guy Tsongas. Come November, they're history."

The lack of enthusiasm among these Democrats is made even more conspicuous by their hostility to President Bush. "I wouldn't vote for that man if my life depended on it," Ms. Reeves said.

"I'll vote for any Democrat to get him out of there," said Ann Mahoney, a sales clerk in Chicago, "but I wish we had somebody real. You know, somebody with a chance."

Not all rank-and-file Democrats are so dispirited, of course. Among the 54 interviewed, there were seven or eight who are sold on Clinton and a similar number who were taken enough with Tsongas to have put aside their doubts. But the Democratic Party seems on the verge of settling on a candidate before many of its constituents have a clear fix on the choices.

"There's something wrong with the way it works," said Arthur Galvin, a lawyer who lives in the Chicago suburbs. "All of a sudden we're faced with all these people who are strangers to us. Then they want us to make an informed decision on the basis of a debate and a few stupid commercials. There has to be a better way."

But for these voters in Illinois, Georgia and Florida, the time has passed for finding "a better way" to make a choice for the Democratic presidential nomination. They will have to live with the decision made elsewhere.

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