Bush still in favor with W.Va. voters

Many in this swing state express cautious support despite economic worries

July 20, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Don Cummings, a 62-year-old West Virginian, has lost about $20,000 in the recent nose dive on Wall Street and says he has his doubts about President Bush.

Like others interviewed here this week, he worries that the economy is headed in the wrong direction, that Bush isn't being tough enough on corporate America and that he has failed to give investors much reason to be confident. Maybe, he says, Bush's decisions are influenced too much by big business.

But overall, he likes what he sees. Cummings, a Democrat, says the president could still come around and respond forcefully to the business scandals.

After all, Cummings says, "when Bush started handling that war, he didn't fool around. He just went in and did it."

Bush has endured several rough weeks lately, staying consistently on the defensive for longer than at any other time in his presidency. Sensing that they may have found a political weak spot, Democrats are pressing Bush to prove that he did nothing wrong as a businessman and investor in Texas more than a decade ago.

Nearly two dozen random interviews in the swing state of West Virginia over the past two days suggest that, so far, Bush has lost little of the immense popularity he gained since Sept. 11.

But many voters say they are disturbed by the recent scandals and are increasingly worried about the economy's future. Yesterday's interviews were conducted before the stock market fell steeply to close below its post-Sept. 11 lows.

For now, West Virginians are showing considerable patience with Bush and say they have faith in him. After Sept. 11, many say, he proved himself to be a leader who knows how to respond to a crisis.

Nearly all of those interviewed in Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, said Bush still strikes them as a straightforward individual and someone who connects well with ordinary people.

But Republicans and Democrats alike say that the nation is going in the wrong direction, especially after recent scandals involving companies such as Enron Corp. and WorldCom, and that Bush won't be immune from blame forever.

"The thieves were in there way before Bush became president, but the ball is in his court now," says Jim Lattanzi, 66, a Democrat who voted for Bush and was found yesterday at a Hardees restaurant that serves as a morning hub for coffee and political analysis.

"It is time for him to make some decisions," Lattanzi says. "He has got to come up to the plate and make sure the economy gets to where it should be."

Two years ago, Bush scored a stunning victory in carrying West Virginia, a Democratic stronghold. His success here was due in large part to his support for the coal industry, the machine of the state's economy.

Since taking office, Bush has visited the state several times and catered to it with a series of economic and environmental decisions seen as highly favorable to the coal and steel industries. Because West Virginia could be crucial again in 2004, there are few states - if any - that the White House is watching more closely for signs that Bush's supporters are souring on him out of frustration and concern about their economic well-being.

And it is voters like Frank Blair, a 76-year-old retired procurement manager, who could spell trouble for the president. Blair is a Republican who backed Bush and says he liked that the president was "getting the country back to honesty." Blair also recently lost $18,000 when his former employer's stock price tumbled.

"Top executives at corporations are feeding themselves, and the little man isn't getting a damn thing," Blair says. He says that Bush, whom he does not plan to vote for again, is a former executive who should have known how large companies work and begun exposing their deceitful accounting practices earlier.

The president was a director at Harken Energy Corp., a Texas company where he was investigated in 1991 for possible insider trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission said it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Still, Blair says, Bush should let the public see all the documents the SEC has on him. "He ought to come clean," Blair says. "He says he hasn't done anything wrong. Fine. Well he should say, `Here are my books.'"

Many of those interviewed compared questions about Bush's business past to former President Bill Clinton's Whitewater investment - an obsession of the news media, they say, and not something that interests them much.

At the same time, though, some Bush backers admit that they would be devastated if he were found to be covering up something.

"He's a professing Christian, and I think you can trust him," says Jack Godfrey, a retired Baptist pastor who was waiting for his wife outside the Shop-N-Save grocery store. "If he says he was exonerated, we should take him for his word. His heart is with America. If they catch him in a lie and he's not the man I thought he was, that would be a real letdown."

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