Coming to grips with Clinton-Dole Support is lukewarm for candidates in likely Nov. battleground

Campaign 1996

March 18, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SPRING GROVE, Pa. - Republicans in this gritty paper mill town feel about their likely presidential nominee much as they feel about the acrid pulp smell that hangs over Main Street and keeps visits from relatives to a minimum.

They may not be crazy about it, but hey, they will tell you to a person, "It smells like money."

Bob Dole, they say with similar resignation and pragmatism, may be a little shopworn and musty as a presidential candidate, but they see the 72-year-old senator as their only hope for, as the front-runner himself put it, the smell of victory.

"He wouldn't have been my choice," says Kevin O'Rourke, 32, a P. H. Glatfelter paper company manager who had been leaning toward Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander. "He's old. He doesn't have as many solutions to problems as I'd like. But Bob Dole's what we've got. I'll probably wind up supporting him."

Passion it is not.

But even with the general election eight months away, voters in this swing state of Reagan Democrats and moderate Republicans a likely battleground in November appear to be settling into their choices, coming to grips, however reluctantly, with a Clinton-Dole matchup.

Interviews with several dozen Republicans and Democrats in south-central Pennsylvania in boroughs surrounding York that mirrored the nation with their vote in 1992 suggest that the November race will be a close one, with most voters retreating to their respective party corners.

But support for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole is lukewarm enough to foster some crossover voting by disgruntled Republicans who see the Senate majority leader as the personification of the status quo and by Democrats who say they were taken in by Mr. Clinton's charisma in 1992 but are troubled by questions about his character.

In an area that embraced the independent candidacy of Ross Perot four years ago, there appears to be little interest in such a third-party or independent alternative this time either in the form of Patrick J. Buchanan, who is seeking the Republican nomination but has recently hinted about an independent run, or Mr. Perot.

"I don't think he'll go anywhere except the 'Tonight' show," Ken Ross, a 48-year-old paper mill employee, says of Mr. Perot.

'Tap dancing on the fence'

Many voters say they are in a quandary, disappointed with what appears to be a choice between two visionless career politicians.

"I'm tap dancing on the fence," says Greg Wetcher, 29, a waiter at Anthony's International Cuisine in York.

"Either Bob Dole needs better speech writers or he needs a little caffeine," says the Republican who is considering Mr. Clinton. "Watching Bob Dole is like watching Al Gore. I'm very undecided.

"Frustrated is what I am."

Mary Groce, a security guard at the Harley-Davidson plant in Springettsbury and a Reagan Democrat who supported Mr. Clinton in 1992, says she, too, is undecided and unhappy.

"We haven't had a good president in this country since FDR," says Ms. Groce, who is leaning toward Mr. Dole. "He was for the people. Clinton is taking care of all the other nations before our own."

Ms. Groce, 70, is not bothered by Mr. Dole's age. "I'm still active," quips the small, gray-haired woman who gives hefty, ponytailed Harley workers a slap on the back as they file out of the plant. "I'm downright cantankerous!"

Vouching for her is fellow Harley guard Robert Ross, 68, who agrees that age should not be a campaign concern.

"Not in this day and age," says Mr. Ross, a Republican. "When I was growing up, I thought a person who got to be 70 was supposed to be dead. But I ain't ready to kick the bucket yet."

More troublesome to some Republicans is the nasty tone that has soured the primary campaign, casting shadows on Mr. Dole even as he tries to engender a warmer, brighter image in his third presidential bid.

"I'm not a real negative person," says Peggy Jennings, a home economics teacher and cheerleader coach, stealing away from her family on a Wednesday night to play bingo at the fire hall. "When I think of Dole, I think negative. He just rubs me the wrong way."

Ms. Jennings, a Perot backer in 1992, says she would vote for Mr. Clinton over the Republican.

"Clinton is acceptable to me," the mother of four says as she marks G-58 on her bingo cards. "I just wish he had sent his daughter to public school."

In this industrial town, where the mill operates all week, Mr. Clinton seems to be getting a boost from the steady economy. For instance, Jim Senft, 38, a Reagan and Bush Democrat, plans to return to his party.

"I wasn't sure about this guy from Arkansas," says Mr. Senft, who owns the Papertown Restaurant and Dairy Bar. "But I think he's done OK."

Variety of concerns

Unlike four years ago, when the sluggish economy dominated the debate among voters and the candidates, this time there is little focus on any one issue. When asked their chief concerns, voters generally name crime, violence and drug abuse, and occasionally a balanced budget and health care.

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