Bush faces challenge in troubled Rust Belt IN THE MIDWEST

October 25, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

DETROIT -- When you hear or read the term Rust Belt, yo think of Detroit. It is a city that, for all the valiant local efforts to keep it up and running, is in many ways simply rusting away. Its shuttered windows and abandoned auto plants give parts of downtown and environs a ghost-town look, and it symbolizes the political challenge that faces President Bush all across the industrial Midwest in this election, and even into the adjacent Plains states.

Four years ago, George Bush carried nine of the 12 states in the Midwest, sweeping the most heavily industrial of them -- Michigan, Ohio and Illinois -- and losing only Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Today, polls indicate a dismal rusting away of his support, especially among Reagan Democrats across the region who blame him for the economic downturn that has decimated the nation's manufacturing base.

Among the Big Three in the region, the president is running close only in Ohio (21 electoral votes), and his campaign operatives are claiming only Indiana (12), North Dakota (3), Kansas (6) and Nebraska (5).

With the once-solid Republican South severely threatened, and California and New York all but surrendered to Gov. Bill Clinton, the president must look to the Midwest -- not just the Rust Belt, but the Farm Belt areas as well -- if he is to have any hope of election. The 12-state region has a total of 129 electoral votes, nearly half of the 270 needed for election.

Here in Michigan as elsewhere throughout the Midwest, the case for President Bush has come down to the case against Governor Clinton. With an eye to those Reagan Democrats, the Bush campaign is running ads warning that Mr. Clinton's stand on gas-consumption goals -- called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE -- will drive up costs and lead to as many as 40,000 lost jobs in Michigan alone.

The CAFE ads are also running on radio elsewhere in the `D industrial Midwest, but Michigan AFL-CIO President Frank Garrison dismisses their impact, quipping that most voters "think CAFE is where you go to get a cup of coffee."

Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign, again with blue-collar Reagan Democrats in mind, is countering with charges that the Bush administration through the federal Agency for International Development (AID) is actually subsidizing efforts to get U.S. corporations to move to low-wage Central America.

One reason Mr. Bush carried Michigan by 8 percentage points four years ago was a low turnout among black voters, uninspired by Michael S. Dukakis.

This year may be different. Although the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has complained of being snubbed by the Clinton campaign, he has been aggressively drumming up Democratic registration in urban Michigan and surrounding states.

The president has been campaigning predominantly in traditionally Republican areas of the Midwest, at a time candidates usually have their own bases in hand and are reaching out into hostile country. The reason, according to one strategist, is that Mr. Bush must maximize the GOP base while hoping that the Democratic turnout is low -- not out of apathy toward the Democratic standard-bearer, as in 1988, but out of overconfidence.

At this stage of a presidential campaign, too, candidates are usually focusing on large electoral-vote battlegrounds, such as Michigan, Illinois and Ohio in the Midwest.

These three have been getting preferred treatment this year, to be sure, but Mr. Clinton massed such a large lead in Illinois that about two weeks ago the Bush campaign stopped running television ads there. That decision, Bush aides say, is now being reassessed as the independent candidate, Ross Perot, shows signs of cutting into Mr. Clinton's lead in the state.

Still, with Michigan and Illinois looking so strong for the Democratic nominee, the Bush campaign has been obliged to take a more nickel-and-dime approach in the Midwest, trying to patch together enough electoral votes from smaller states, plus Ohio, to compensate for potential loss of the larger ones.

The most recently published polls in the region put the president ahead only in Nebraska and Indiana, and tied in North Dakota, so he is slated to go into Wisconsin (11 electoral votes), Iowa (7), North Dakota and South Dakota (3) in the campaign's final week.

In the Midwest arithmetic, no state looks essential to Mr. Clinton's chances for election, but it is hard to see how the president can survive if he fails to win Ohio. No Republican, in fact, has ever been elected president without having carried the Buckeye State.

Four years ago, Mr. Bush won it by nearly 11 percentage points, FTC but unemployment has gone up 2 percentage points since then and Mr. Clinton is expected to run much more strongly than Mr. Dukakis did among blacks and rural voters in southern Ohio, many of whom have Southern roots that give them special affinity with the Arkansas governor.

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