Voters, parties stay ambivalent on '93 election

November 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- As the clock runs out on the campaigns of 1993, the candidates, the parties and the voters are still looking for a theme.

The highest profile races on tomorrow's ballot -- gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and a razor-edged mayoral race in New York City -- are all being driven by the same force that propelled Bill Clinton to the White House last year: unhappiness with the nation's direction and a hunger for change. But voters appear unsure which party can be trusted to provide it.

"The backdrop for the election is very clear: There is still enormous dissatisfaction with the status quo and personal insecurity about the way things are going," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is working for candidates in both Virginia and New Jersey. "But in the face of the discrediting of the George Bush solutions, and uncertainty about the Bill Clinton solutions, there is no clear direction from the voters."

In addition to the three high-profile elections, voters in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, Miami and other cities will elect mayors tomorrow. Closely watched ballot initiatives include measures on school vouchers in California and taxes in Washington and Oregon.

Both parties are still trying to puzzle out a political landscape dominated by the presence of a Democrat in the White House after 12 years of Republican control. Judging by the campaigns in the big three elections this year, most observers say, Republicans haven't made much progress at sharpening a new message for the 1990s. "I don't see much in the way of a common theme," says James P. Pinkerton, a former Bush White House aide now at the Manhattan Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank.

Democratic candidates seem even more disjointed as they struggle to adjust to an era when they can no longer blame local problems on insensitive Republican presidents. On the campaign trail this fall, New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins has blamed the city's problems on Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush so often that he sometimes seems nostalgic for the 1980s. Mr. Dinkins and New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio have embraced Mr. Clinton, but the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Mary Sue Terry, has distanced herself.

Predicting emerging issues from odd-year elections is a hazardous business. After Democrats Mr. Florio and L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia won governorships in 1989 by stressing support for abortion rights, pundits predicted the issue would dominate the 1990 campaigns. It never happened. This year, the signals may be even more diffuse -- and in that sense accurately reflect the electorate's enormous ambivalence.

Everywhere, for example, voters are concerned about crime. But it isn't likely they will signal a strong preference on how they want candidates to respond.

Democrats are pressing gun control measures with new confidence.

But in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Ms. Terry hasn't benefited much from stressing gun control and tying the NRA around her opponent, Republican George F. Allen. Although Virginia already has a computerized instant-check system for gun purchases, Ms. Terry has proposed a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases .

Mr. Allen opposes the waiting period and instead has proposed to abolish parole for certain types of violent offenses. In a Washington Post survey, Virginia residents were somewhat more enthusiastic about imposing the waiting period on gun purchases than on abolishing parole.

But Mr. Allen's opposition to gun control hasn't dented his comfortable lead , and most analysts expect him to cruise to victory tomorrow.

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