Candidates leave voters cold in upstate New York Even regular voters share general apathy

April 04, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — This is the third in a series of conversations with voting Americans. Throughout the presidential campaign, The Sun is talking with voters in different regions of the country, sounding .. out the electorate as the two major parties select nominees.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Go ask the construction worker about the presidential elections. Then ask the corporate accountant, the retired couple, the entrepreneur, and the real estate executive. They've never met, but they sound as if they just came from the same talk show, their comments overlapping in a loop of apathy and anxiety.

All six vote regularly, they say, but when they look at the choice awaiting them Tuesday in the New York primary, they are almost embarrassed for their country. Who to vote for? The unpopular Republican president or the protest candidate with the poison pen? The Democratic front-runner nobody trusts or California's "Governor Moonbeam?"

"We have politics at its best and candidates at their worst," said Leon McKee, the construction worker, a registered Democrat. "There's a strong possibility that I might go into the booth and pull nothing down on the presidential side, because of the apathy."

Ed Warnick, the entrepreneur, a registered Republican, said, "I'm troubled by the quality of the people involved. I look at our possibilities for national leadership, and it just doesn't settle right with me."

The other four -- Bobby J. Anderson, the corporate accountant; Dick and Janet Doptis, the retired couple; and Carol Derue, the real estate executive -- said much the same thing during recent interviews in this snowy city on Lake Ontario. They cited a variety of reasons behind this spreading dissatisfaction -- including, some said, voter laziness -- but they offered little in the way of remedies. And their comments suggest that no matter how spirited this voter revolt gets, it will lead nowhere except deeper into apathy unless something or someone new changes their minds.

None of the six was excited about President Bush or Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton, and they scoffed at the protest candidacies of Republican Patrick J. Buchanan, he of the poison pen, and California's Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown.

They envision a grim election season, one that could rival even the awful ones of recent memory.

"There have been some elections that have become absolutely tedious," said Ms. Derue, "You just get sick and tired of hearing it, and you say, please don't tell me again what's going on, just have the election, and let's be done with it."

She feels that the need for big campaign money is keeping worthy challengers out of the field. "I think we could have better candidates if the election system were different." She suggested spending caps and perhaps more public financing. She wishes more people would check off the $1 contribution to the campaign fund on their income tax forms, but she hardly blames them for refusing in greater numbers every year.

"For my dollar, the races have gotten nastier, with more mudslinging, and why do I want to support that?"

The nastiness. The pettiness. The nitpicking. That's what bothers them most, they said. It's the awful formula that leaves them adding up minuses instead of pluses every election day. And it scares away quality candidates.

"A lot of good people, I think, avoid political office because of the beating you have to take in order to wend your way through the political process," Mr. Warnick said. "It comes from the media and from the opponents. I think the beating from the media is . . . trying to bring out character issues, political issues, national issues, whatever, to try to get their view out, and I understand that. But that process seems to be long, drawn out, and tends to drift into areas that sometimes, I think, are so personal that I wonder why we're addressing that."

Mrs. Doptis agrees. "No one wants to be put under the microscope, to be subjected to the digging, digging, digging, over stories about who stole a candy bar when they were 10 years old," she said.

Even the candidates who brave this onslaught tend to become gun-shy after a while and end up glossing over subjects for fear of triggering an adverse reaction.

Just look at Bill Clinton, Mr. McKee said. "Clinton is more or less gliding over everything and not touching anything. And that's what all the politicians are doing today. They're not getting to the heart of anything."

Thus, a vicious cycle is set in motion. The negatives make voters apathetic, so fewer turn out or pay attention. So, worse candidates get into office, which only alienates voters further, which only further weakens the selection process.

Voters should share the blame for this cycle, some said.

"We Americans seem to have a very short attention span," Mr. Anderson said. "If something is happening and it's exciting and we get involved in it, we get out there wholeheartedly and push on it. Then as soon as that thing is over, we're up and running on something else."

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