Michigan's once-solid Reagan Democrats moving toward Clinton camp

September 30, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

WARREN, Mich. -- President Bush, belly up to the bar here at Len's Place, across from the huge General Motors transmission plant, and say hello to Bill Tidwell.

You don't know Bill, but he, and countless other one-time Reagan Democrats like him, voted for you in 1988. And they probably will decide here in recession-wracked Michigan whether you can win again in a state that is critical to your chances of re-election.

You need the Bill Tidwells, and right now they don't feel great about you. Listen to him as he sips a drink and pours out his feelings:

"I want Clinton in. Bush isn't worth anything. What has he done for the working man? I voted for Reagan. I was a Democrat but I didn't think anyone could beat him. Bush did a good job on the war, but as far as the United States goes, he hasn't done anything except create unemployment. If he wins, I think the middle class is in a lot of trouble.

"Last year I made about $65,000. This year I made $20,000. Out of 1,600 members of my union, only 250 have been employed in the last two and a half years.

"When Reagan was in, people were working. He was trying to create jobs; he tried to get people off welfare. Other than the gulf war, do you know anything Bush has done for the American people? And he keeps blaming Congress. I'm totally disgusted with Bush, and everybody I know is voting for Bill Clinton."

Bill Tidwell doesn't speak for all voters here in Macomb County, celebrated for its concentration of Reagan Democrats, let alone for all the working men who drift into Len's Place after the day shift.

A few seats down the bar, another registered Democrat, who declines to give his name, says Mr. Bush has done "a great job, especially with his foreign policies," and will get his vote. Of Mr. Clinton, he says: "I think he's a rising star, but I don't think he's ready for it yet."

Still farther down the bar, still another Democrat named Mike Mulkeran says: "I wanted to vote for Perot, but he backed out. I just don't like Clinton or Bush. I would vote for Perot if he got back in."

But the strongest views expressed here are similar to Bill Tidwell's. Take Randy Strahn, perched at the end of the bar:

"Bush goes back to 'Read my lips.' Say whatever you want and do whatever you want to get elected. I like the idea of getting a Democratic president working with a Democratic House and Senate.

"Bush tried to follow in Reagan's footsteps, and he shows up the last few months when he wants something. I was laid off seven months. We had to fight to get the unemployment extended. I nearly lost my house. Taxes ate me up. Where was Bush when I needed him?"

What Bill Tidwell and Randy Strahn think about George Bush is critical this year because by most calculations the president must run strongly across the industrial East and Midwest, the so-called Rust Belt, to offset the anticipated loss of California and its 54 electoral votes -- 20 percent of the total needed for election.

And to win Michigan's 18 electoral votes, he must hold most of the Democrats and independents who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and for Mr. Bush in 1988.

Traditionally a Democratic stronghold, Macomb County -- a nearly all-white enclave just north of Detroit -- gave Mr. Reagan 52 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 1984, and Mr. Bush 65 percent four years ago.

"It wasn't that they were voting more Republican," says Democratic County Chairman Leo LaLonde. "They were voting more anti-Democratic Party. They always said they would come back in a minute if we gave them somebody to vote for. That somebody is Bill Clinton."

Coleen Pero, Mr. Bush's campaign manager in Michigan, says the Republican appeal to the Reagan Democrats is "to get the truth out to them" about the Arkansas governor's agenda, which the Republicans, putting their own price tag on it, contend would amount to $220 billion in new spending and $150 billion in new taxes.

With the state suffering 9 percent unemployment and blue-collar workers like those in Macomb County concerned about job security after the loss of about 85,000 manufacturing jobs in the state in the last four years, there is more political promise for the Bush campaign in warning voters about the devil they don't know than trying to make them more favorably disposed to the one they know.

Asked whether Mr. Bush is a hard sell this year, Ms. Pero replies: "Politics is a hard sell." A term-limits initiative on the ballot here that Mr. Bush supports is expected to pass, and she says this should help the president.

So should two other initiatives, says Saul Anuzis, top aide to state Senate Majority Leader Dick Posthumus.

One, pushed by Republican Gov. John Engler, Mr. Bush's state campaign chairman, would put a cap on property taxes and assessments. The other would roll back insurance rates but impose a ceiling on benefits awarded.

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