Frederick's hard times alienate voters many Bush supporters now desert him

October 24, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

FREDERICK -- Mike Carr of Middletown stands before what looks like a video game just outside the J.C. Penney's at Frederick Towne Mall. But he isn't finding much amusement on the screen.

". . . OPERATE MACHINE THAT SPREADS AND LEVELS HOT MIXED BITUMINOUS PAVING MATERIALS ON SUB-GRADE OF HIGHWAYS AND STREETS, $11/HR . . . ."

"It's hard," the out-of-work equipment operator sighs as he scrolls through this computerized job directory. "When I was a teen-ager, heck, just a few years back, you could go out and get a job."

". . . TRACTOR TRAILER DRIVER, $550/WK . . . SHORT ORDER COOK $6/HR . . . DOUGHNUT MAKER, $7.18/HR . . . ."

Just as easily as he flips from construction work to food service on the video job bank, his talk of jobs spills into talk of politics.

"I'm gonna vote for Perot," the life-long Republican says. "Some people think I'm wasting my vote, but Bush has had four years to do something and the economy has done nothing but get worse. I voted for Bush last time. This time I'm not."

His wife Marguerite, a bus operator, is still undecided. Sort of. "I know it won't be Bush," she says.

They used to love George Bush up in this conservative corner of Maryland. And some still do.

They boast about how the president has played golf at a Frederick area country club. How he's been to baseball games here.

And his shopping spree at the Penney's here last November is memorialized in photographs in the store manager's office and in the minds of those who met him.

"I shook his hand," recalls Harriet Douglas, a stockroom supervisor. "I should have said, 'Give my husband a job,' but I was too nervous."

The Penney's trip, during which Mr. Bush purchased some athletic socks, CDs and assorted Christmas gifts, was intended to set an example for hesitant consumers and help stimulate the economy.

But sandwiched as it was between budget turmoil and the president's ill-fated trip to Japan, the Frederick photo op seemed to mark a turning point in the president's fortunes -- one from which he has never recovered.

If patrons to this mall are any indication, neither has the economy.

Although there is slightly more traffic here than there was earlier in the year, and the Penney's manager reports that sales "seem to be loosening up good," there are still more hard-luck stories than there are sale racks.

There is Doris Cavelle, 57, who lost her job at a coil-manufacturing plant when the order for her particular line of goods went to a new plant in Mexico.

There's Donna Kennell who's on the verge of packing in her 3-year-old "Spiffy Sparkles" decorated shirt business because she's not making a profit anymore.

Frustration with the stagnant economy has made voters acutely aware of every nuance of the presidential race.

They're eager to talk about line-item vetoes, free trade agreements, welfare reform.

In many cases, this frustration is translating into votes against Mr. Bush.

"I don't think he cut it," says Mike Denmark, a former Bush Democrat who will be voting for Bill Clinton this time. "He failed. There's like a heavy fog that maybe somebody new will be able to lift. It's a lack of confidence more than anything else."

"I'm seriously thinking I might vote for Perot," says Crystal Wiles, of Union Bridge.

A Republican who supported Mr. Bush in 1988, Ms. Wiles says her family has been feeling a pinch from the recession, but on the other hand, has taken advantage of the low interest rates and is putting an addition on their home.

Still, the bank accountant, shopping on her lunch break for clothes for her 6-month-old daughter, says she's ready to take a flyer on this election and break with the traditional political parties.

"Maybe I'm just a radical swing vote, but I feel like saying, 'The hell with you two guys.' "

But as often as shoppers here speak of financial woes, there are other factors evident in some of the anti-Bush sentiment.

For Mr. Denmark, an electronics equipment salesman who stopped by the mall to buy some CDs and check out Madonna's new "Sex" book ("They have it all sealed up!" he lamented), the turn away from Mr. Bush had little to do with economics and a lot to do with the religious right.

"For me, when I voted for Bush [in 1988], I thought he was a moderate Republican," says the Frederick resident. "I feel he's kowtowed to the conservative wing, the fundamentalist

Christians, and that rhetoric just scares the hell out of me."

Similarly, archaeologist Barbara Little of Frederick says the Clinton vote she plans to cast is really an "anti-Bush" vote.

"I think he was a pretty reasonable moderate Republican," says Ms. Little, a part-time University of Maryland professor who left the College Park campus last spring when she couldn't get a permanent job there.

"Then he went bonkers and thought the right wing of his party would help him. That was the biggest mistake he ever made."

But the Bush Democrats and the Republicans don't appear to have abandoned the incumbent en masse here.

Although an informal survey of several dozen shoppers this week revealed a slight lead for Mr. Clinton, many voters still express doubts about the Democrat, suggesting that all of Mr. Bush's talk of trust and taxes has resonated in these parts.

"I know it's crazy. I've been fighting with myself," says Ms. Douglas, the J.C. Penney employee whose husband has been unemployed for a year.

"But by process of elimination, I'll have to vote for Bush. I just don't trust Clinton at all."

Besides, when she shook the president's hand after his sock purchase nearly one year ago, she says, he seemed like a personable kind of guy.

"I'm mad at the president, but I think he has good intentions. Maybe by now he knows that people are really, really upset."

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