Bush to face critical test in jobs-poor Pennsylvania Electorate at large is mirrored in state

September 06, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- "George Bush," Celia Fischer says with some asperity, "is not going to be sailing into Boston Harbor in this state."

On the face of it, that assertion by the state director of the Clinton-Gore campaign in Pennsylvania would seem to be self-evident. But the point she is making sums up the central question about the 1992 presidential campaign as it enters the final and decisive nine weeks:

Can President Bush use attacks on Bill Clinton -- such as the one that blamed Michael S. Dukakis for the pollution of Boston Harbor -- to overcome the enormous lead the Democratic nominee has achieved because of the electorate's concern about the economy and its conviction Mr. Bush is to blame?

Pennsylvania is not necessarily the perfect place to test this question. It is a state that candidate Bush won narrowly, 51 to 48 percent, four years ago in the face of an inept campaign by Mr. Dukakis. But there are no laboratory situations in American politics, and this is a state with all of the elements of the electorate at large.

With an unemployment rate above 8 percent statewide and perhaps 10 percent in some areas, it is a state with preoccupying concern over finding and protecting jobs. Republicans agree with Ms. Fischer when she says: "Jobs and the economy override everything in Pennsylvania."

There are other issues. The inadequacy of the health-care system is one that Harris Wofford exploited so successfully in winning a special election for the Senate last fall. There is concern over the environment because the state is living with toxic waste sites. But this is a state in which it is always jobs, jobs, jobs.

The electorate includes all the groups being targeted most intensely by both campaigns nationally. There are, for example, large numbers of so-called Reagan Democrats, particularly in western Pennsylvania, who have defected to the Republicans in large numbers in the last three presidential elections because of their social conservatism but now may be open to a Democratic message on jobs.

The suburbs around Philadelphia and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh,are heavily populated by politically moderate Republicans, many of whom may be tempted to cross party lines because of their support for abortion rights. Black voters, a critical constituency for the Democrats, make up just over 9 percent of the voting-age population. The less-populous central regions of the state are heavily agricultural and overwhelmingly Republican. In the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area, there is significant and well-organized movement against abortion rights.

There are, of course, elements that distort the situation here. One is the intense Senate campaign between Republican incumbent Arlen Specter Jr. and Democrat Lynn Yeakel that so far has attracted far more attention than the presidential campaign. Another is the fact that Democratic Gov. Robert Casey has refused to endorse the party ticket because of his angry reaction against his party's support for abortion rights.

But whatever the variables, the race here distills the essence of the campaign. If Mr. Bush cannot be at least competitive here, it would be extremely difficult for him to win re-election.

At the moment, the indicators here are conspicuously hostile to the president, just as they are in so many states with rich electoral-vote prizes. Although there have been no published opinion polls recently, a private poll found Mr. Clinton leading 57 to 34 percent 10 days ago. A survey made by a prominent Philadelphia consultant to Democratic candidates, Neil Oxman, also found that state voters believe 75 percent to 12 percent that the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than heading in "the right direction" -- a finding only marginally more threatening to the incumbent president than the latest national figures on the same question.

Nor do the Republicans deny the situation is a perilous one. In Harrisburg, Dick Filling, the 60-year-old professional running the Bush-Quayle campaign, says: "There's no question but that we're No. 2 trying to be No. 1."

Another prominent Republican, speaking privately, is more blunt: Bush is in real bad trouble here. He's not going to win Pennsylvania unless something major happens. He's so far removed from real life he cannot relate to the problems people have here."

Ed Rendell, the street-savvy mayor of Philadelphia and one of the leaders of the Clinton campaign, brims with optimism. "It's just a question of how much," he says. "It would take a major reversal, like a bad debate performance."

Indeed, the Republican assignment here is so formidable that the Democrats are trying to encourage the notion the Bush campaign will concede the state. In fact, however, that is not a realistic option because the Bush campaign cannot also concede New Jersey, half of which gets its news and commercials from Philadelphia televisions, and perhaps Ohio, which abuts Pennsylvania on the west.

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