Uncertain voters want to know more of Clinton

September 13, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

ST. BERNARD, Ohio -- Ed Ackell can come up with as many reasons to vote against George Bush as there are chili parlors in this working-class town just outside of Cincinnati. Even so, the industrial designer, an independent voter who supported Mr. Bush in 1988, can't seem to commit to Bill Clinton.

"I don't know enough about him right now," says Mr. Ackell, who remains an undecided voter leaning in the direction of the Arkansas governor. "He's got to give me more nuts and bolts."

In the conservative, working-class and middle-class towns that circle Cincinnati -- one of the battleground areas of this election, where both presidential candidates recently made campaign stops and where the Democrat aired TV ads late last week -- the election has come down to getting to know Bill Clinton.

It's a theme that, in the countdown weeks of the election, is being examined with new vigor as many voters start to think seriously, and in some cases for the first time, about their choices.

Interviews with several dozen swing voters here, many of them socially conservative Ronald Reagan and Bush Democrats and independents, suggest that while a number are supporting the Democrat this time around, many are still in a quandary -- hungering for change, inching toward it, but not yet completely comfortable with Mr. Clinton at the head of the table, not exactly sure who he is.

"He has a glowing personality, and he's good on television, but he's just this big question mark," says Democrat Alvina Broering, a retired bookkeeper of Delhi, Ohio, who is undecided.

"It's nothing factual," says Sue Davis, a younger Delhi resident, of her hesitations about Mr. Clinton. "I guess it's just the unfamiliarity. I'm really torn right now. It's going to take some heavy-duty inspiration from one of the candidates."

While Mr. Clinton has tried to provide that inspiration to voters, most of whom had never heard of him before last winter, Mr. Bush has been working overtime trying to plant doubts about the governor. He has called into question Mr. Clinton's character, experience and mettle and has framed the campaign around the issue of trust.

But if there is any prevailing mood in these centuries-old towns of southwestern Ohio, where U.S. flags are as common as pansies in front yards, it's a lack of enthusiasm for, and a lack of trust in, either of the presidential contenders.

There are no bumper stickers, no signs, no campaign buttons or T-shirts. If you had a nickel for every person who said he was voting for "the lesser of two evils," you could buy the Bengals.

One recent national poll showed 35 percent of the vote firmly committed to Mr. Clinton, 30 percent solidly behind Mr. Bush and 35 percent either tilting one way or undecided.

Republican poll-taker Ed Goeas thinks that with the economy in such a shambles, the only reason Mr. Clinton's lead isn't even greater among committed voters is that "he's still largely undefined."

And indeed, voters like Dave Carrell, a law enforcement officer in the northern Kentucky town of Covington, speak of "taking a chance" with Mr. Clinton.

"I'm at a loss," says the former Bush supporter. "Do I go for change even though I'm not sure Clinton's the man, or do I go with what I know and let things lie?"

Clearly, however, Mr. Clinton has rounded out the portrait of himself since his caricature days as the smooth operator and womanizer. Voters now talk about his welfare reform proposals, his record in Arkansas, his tax plan -- even if it's in very general terms. They describe him as being tuned in to the needs of the middle class. Rarely is there a mention of Gennifer Flowers, the cabaret singer who claimed to have had an affair with the governor, or a mention of uninhaled marijuana.

The campaign's "truth squad" rebuts GOP attacks so quickly they barely have time to land before they're swatted back. And perhaps most effective in filling out the picture has been the campaign's all-out effort, seen vividly at the convention, to tell the story of Mr. Clinton's small-town upbringing.

Janice Urbanik, for one, a Democrat and engineer for Procter & Gamble Co., says she hadn't even considered voting for Mr. Clinton until after the convention. Now, the Ohioan says she'll probably vote for the man she once considered "too slimy."

But if the Clinton team has made inroads in defining the Democratic nominee, so, too, has the Bush team.

"I don't think [Mr. Clinton] has defined himself, and therein lies the great opportunity for us," says James Lake, deputy campaign manager for Mr. Bush.

If voters' reservations about the Arkansas governor are any indication, the Republicans have succeeded in keeping a measure of doubt about their opponent on the radar screen. In describing their image of Mr. Clinton, some voters echo Republican charges and themes, saying they fear he is another traditional tax-and-spend Democrat, a politician who waffles and flip-flops on issues, is untested in foreign affairs, and, most of all, can't be trusted to tell the truth.

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