Washington struggles make few waves in Pa. FBI files, Whitewater get low-key reaction in presidential contest

Campaign 1996

July 04, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- "I just hustle windows, I don't worry about politics or that foolishness in Washington," says Al Rogowski, unloading his panel truck. "My boss sells the windows and I install 'em, so I don't have time to pay attention to who's doing what in Washington, and I don't imagine for a minute it would be any different if this other fellow gets in."

Maureen Gallagher, pushing her squirming 2-year-old son in a shopping cart, has a similar plague-on-both-their-houses attitude. "I must say," she says, "that President Clinton isn't setting a very good example, but I don't suppose Dole would be any better."

Gallagher's brother-in-law Tom is somewhat more impressed by Whitewater and the FBI files. "I've been following it on television," he says, loading two cases of beer into his pickup, "and I think it's pretty serious.

"But I don't understand it all, and I don't know that's the reason you vote for somebody like Dole, some Republican."

This is the kind of thing you hear these days here in northeast Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, once a principal supplier of the anthracite coal that heated American homes decades ago.

The low level of interest is pertinent because the 11th Congressional District, which includes Luzerne and parts of four surrounding counties, is a bellwether. In 1992, it voted Clinton 42 percent, George Bush 38 percent and Ross Perot 20 percent -- almost mirroring the national figures of 43, 37 and 19. The same was true in 1988 when it favored Bush 53 percent to 47 percent over Democrat Michael Dukakis.

If three dozen random interviews are any reflection of opinion here, voters are disturbed by accusations directed at Clinton and the White House -- but not yet ready to convert their uneasiness into votes for a Republican candidate, Bob Dole, they see only dimly in the distance. National polls reflect a similar phenomenon.

"I just don't know enough about Dole to say what I might do," says Henry Krumchek, a retired steel worker. "What I know about him mostly is that he's almost as old as I am and" -- pausing and spitting tobacco for emphasis -- "that is too old."

One clear message is that the campaign has not become a priority matter for most voters. On the contrary, it is largely invisible with the election little more than four months away.

There is, however, a recognition by the campaigns that Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes are a prize both candidates need to reach the magic 270 if the national campaign develops along traditional lines.

That would mean that once again the so-called Rust Belt states -- Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- would be the critical battleground, with Illinois and Michigan leaning Democratic, Ohio and New Jersey leaning Republican, and Pennsylvania the swing state that it has been throughout the post-World War II years.

The Clinton campaign is spending $170,000 a week on television advertising beamed to most of the major markets across Pennsylvania and intends to keep it up until convention time, except perhaps during the Olympics next month.

The TV buy is not heavy, just enough so the average viewer would see a Clinton commercial two or three times a week.

"We're trying to keep a positive message out there," said Anthony Podesta, a veteran Washington strategist assigned to oversee the Clinton campaign in the state. "The idea is to stay on the air, to be relentless."

The presence is so low-key that Mark Singel, the state Democratic chairman, calls it an "almost subliminal level of advocacy."

In any case, few viewer-voters here in the Wilkes-Barre area have been aware of it. "I hear there's some TV ads," says waitress Angela Rosselini, serving sausage and pasta, "but I haven't caught up with them. All I know is that they're slinging a lot of mud."

The Dole campaign is essentially invisible at this stage. Hampered by a lack of money, the Dole forces have not yet established a ground operation of their own.

Their only electronic presence has come from a few spots run in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh under the imprimatur of the Republican National Committee. Nor has Dole's decision to leave the Senate to campaign full time had any visible impact; many voters are hardly aware of it.

Democratic leaders take a predictable view of the way voters are responding to the Whitewater and FBI files matters.

Jim Bach, the Democratic county chairman, says that "it's not getting a lot of play up here. They [the Republicans] haven't proven anything, and people are saying, 'How long are they going to stay on one subject?' "

The local congressman, Paul E. Kanjorski, a Democrat who has breezed to 2-to-1 margins in his past two election campaigns, says the events involved in the Whitewater case are so distant in time and place, "it really is Teflon so far as the president goes." He is slightly more cautious about the FBI files question, however.

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