State issues swamped everywhere by economy ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign moves into its final month, there will be an increasing focus on what's happening in a handful of states -- those with the largest numbers of electoral votes and those that by tradition or the latest polling figures are rated as the key battlegrounds of the election.

At the outset, the list included California, the big casino with 54 electoral votes -- 20 percent of the 270 needed for election -- New York (33 votes), Texas (32), Florida (25), Pennsylvania (23), Illinois (22), Ohio (21), Michigan (18), New Jersey (15), North Carolina (14), Georgia (13) and Missouri and Wisconsin (11 each).

This state-by-state focus is usually essential because issues and political conditions most often vary from one to another, benefiting one candidate here, the other there. Regional and cultural factors also usually determine voting behavior, so each state is looked at through the special prism of its own characteristics, population mix and political history.

But there appears to be a phenomenon working this year that is rendering this state-by-state examination less significant than it has been in the past. Just about wherever one looks this fall, with only minor variations according to region, the picture emerging is strikingly the same:

Democrat Bill Clinton is riding broad and deep dissatisfaction with the economy to strong leads in many states that President Bush carried four years ago and to competitive positions in other states that Bush won going away in 1988 and figured to have in the bag.

Everywhere, this overriding issue is bringing Reagan Democrats home to their original party loyalty, eroding the Reagan-Bush era dominance in the suburbs and tightening the longtime Democratic lock on black voters. The old liberal-vs.-conservative comparison that usually sets the Northeast against the South, for example, has been blurred by the Democrats' choice of two Southern candidates, though both Clinton and Sen. Al Gore are liberals by the standard definition.

With the rate of unemployment remaining high, Clinton's candidacy remains strong with it, and whatever approach Bush takes to cut the Arkansas governor down to size does not seem to bear fruit. Unable to duck the economic issue, the Bush campaign is now trying to counter it by resurrecting the old tax-and-spend label against the Democratic nominee. The latest Bush television commercial seeks to convince voters that Clinton's campaign promises will mean higher taxes on the beleaguered middle class, in spite of Clinton's stated intention to put any new tax bite on the rich.

In a sense, the dominance of the economic issue has turned this campaign into a national referendum on Bush's handling of the economy that transcends many state borders, and on expectations of how he or Clinton will deal with it in the next four years, with Ross Perot likely to be essentially a crank candidate.

This is not to suggest, certainly, that Bush won't carry some number of states. But in California and New York, Clinton is running so far ahead in the polls that there is much speculation that the Bush campaign has for all practical purposes already thrown in the sponge there. And in Illinois, which was narrowly carried by Bush in 1988 and was rated a battleground state only weeks ago, the Clinton manager, Bill Daley, says the polls now show his candidate so far ahead that he doesn't expect to see him in the state again before Nov. 3.

There is, for all this, the prudent rule in politics to never say never. The debates could produce a Clinton misstep that could turn things around and send electoral-vote counters back to the drawing board, state by state.

But right now, it doesn't seem to matter much what state you go to, except for those few where you risk being shot on sight if you don't vote Republican. Americans almost everywhere appear poised to vote their discontent with the incumbent's economic drift. And the local factors that in many past elections have obliged assessors of presidential campaigns to put each state under a microscope, one by one, do not appear to matter to nearly the degree they have in most other years.

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