In New Hampshire, the big issue is jobs

March 15, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

NASHUA, N.H. -- This is the state Bill Clinton comes to when he's in trouble.

He worked crowds in Claremont after Gennifer Flowers jolted his presidential ambition by accusing him of infidelity. He spoke at a trade school in Chatham after allegations that he dodged the draft.

The night of the primary, when he finished second, Mr. Clinton pronounced himself "the Comeback Kid" from a hotel lobby in Merrimack.

Today, with the White House being knocked off stride by almost daily revelations about the Whitewater affair, Mr. Clinton returns to the stump to try to change the conversation with the politically plugged-in residents of this no-nonsense state.

Mr. Clinton was to spend last night in the Sheraton Tara here, a hotel where two winters ago reporters besieged him with questions about marital fidelity and the draft.

White House officials hope the president can work his magic again today as he tries to turn the nation's talk back to such issues as crime, jobs and health care -- and away from doubts about his past.

Most New Hampshirites aren't gushing over Mr. Clinton -- gushing isn't really their style -- but just the same, Mr. Clinton is likely to be encouraged by what he finds here.

"I haven't heard a single person, either to me, or to each other, make a single remark about [Whitewater] one way or the other," says Eric Griffel, the proprietor of the Apple Tree Book Shop in Concord.

That sentiment was echoed in three New Hampshire cities yesterday in a series of interviews in which residents revealed nagging doubts about the president's character but also conveyed a firm sense that they have other, more important things on their minds.

"The economy," said Ashton E. Welch, the 51-year-old executive vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. "The numbers show things are improving, but every day it seems you hear of more layoffs. Home sales are up, for instance, but my wife has been out of work for two years. If you're a white-collar worker, those jobs aren't coming back."

Mr. Welch recently advertised for an entry-level government-affairs position in his association -- and received 407 applications, 95 percent of them from New Hampshire.

White House officials have been saying that ordinary Americans care a lot more about issues such as jobs than about Whitewater -- and Hillary Rodham Clinton made that point again yesterday in Denver.

Some see sideshow

In New Hampshire, even some fierce critics of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton believe that Whitewater is a sideshow.

"They'll just cover it up," said Kay Dovas, proprietor of a tiny Manchester diner and a faithful reader of the ardently conservative Manchester Union-Leader. "But what I want to know about is, where are all these jobs he promised? How's he going to wiggle out of that one? They're boarding up Main Street. The Holiday Inn is going to be auctioned."

Unemployment in the state has dropped below 6 percent, but as residents here kept pointing out, numbers don't always tell the ,, story.

At the Marine Corps recruiting office in Concord, Sgt. Anthony F. Retterer and Pvt. Kevin Maxwell cull the lists of recently graduated high school students, calling periodically from a list of young people who have expressed interest in the Marines.

"A lot of them, you know, two years after high school, are still working in a McDonald's," Private Maxwell said.

In little more than a year, Sergeant Retterer has sent 33 local recruits to Parris Island, S.C., for boot camp, a number higher than the goal set by the Corps. "Jobs with comprehensive benefits, jobs with a future, are few and far between," he said.

Today, Mr. Clinton will tackle questions about jobs, comprehensive benefits such as health care -- and lots else -- at a town meeting to be held in the gymnasium of Elm Street Junior High School here.

But just because people have things other than Whitewater on their minds doesn't mean the president will get softball questions. This is, after all, New Hampshire, where, because of their first-in-the-nation primary, folks are used to being treated royally, not the other way around.

A peeved mayor

Nashua Mayor Rob Wagner, a Democrat, was so peeved that President George Bush didn't visit the city until he was challenged in the Republican primary that, after a 1992 campaign visit, he sent the White House a bill for $20,000, his estimate of the overtime paid to police and other officials.

"I never heard from the White House," he said.

"Whenever a president comes, people get excited, but we don't forget ourselves," said Nashua Police Officer Bob Sullivan. "Once, when Clinton was campaigning here, he parked in front of City Hall -- and I tagged his car."

Officer Sullivan didn't express an opinion on Whitewater, but he said he'd like to see Mr. Clinton get a chance to implement some of his ideas, including hiring 100,000 more police officers and vastly expanding the idea of national service by young people in return for having their college tuitions paid for.

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