Published on Sunday, October 22, 2000 in the Baltimore Sun
Voters Are Tuning In, Turning Sour
People express disappointment with Bush, Gore;
'Like a fraternity election'
by Jonathan Weisman
 
WASHINGTON - From the ethnic salad bowl of Southern California to the leafy suburbs of Maryland's Harford County, many of the nation's voters appear to be eyeing Election Day with disappointment, dissatisfaction and even disgust for two presidential candidates who still have not won their confidence.

A consensus seems to have taken hold that George W. Bush lacks the qualifications - and, some say, the intellect - for the presidency, while Al Gore lacks honesty and personal appeal.

In dozens of recent conversations with Sun reporters, voters across the country used many of the same words to sum up their feelings. Their votes, they said, would be cast without enthusiasm for the man they viewed as the less objectionable candidate.

Sun reporters had spoken with the same voters in early summer about the nation's direction during the Clinton era and about the future. In general, the electorate seemed more at ease then with its prosperity and content with its choices.

As voters have tuned into the presidential campaign, they have turned notably sour. Those negative sentiments might help explain the fluidity of recent presidential polling. Because support for both candidates seems relatively tepid, minor events, or even shifts in the tone of news coverage, have been able to shift the momentum of the race, as measured by the polls.

"It's two over-privileged guys duking it out for the most important office in the world," said Barry Martin, a 61-year-old bookstore owner in Pasadena, Calif. "It's like a fraternity election - two guys running for president of the frat."

Even partisans are showing queasiness about their choices. On Wall Street, Mike McCarty, a registered Republican who has never wavered in his support for Bush, nevertheless indicated that he would vote Nov. 7 with little cheer.

"Being a Republican, I'm going to vote for G. W.," said McCarty, who works for the National Association of Securities Dealers. "But I'm going to be hesitant pulling the lever, because he doesn't inspire any kind of confidence for me."

Trent Broadwater, a cabinetmaker in Dundalk, said he will vote for Gore, certain that the vice president is the candidate of the working man. But he understands why so many of his working-class neighbors are unmoved by Gore.

"He just doesn't look as strong and young and vital as Bush," Broadwater said. "He looks almost paranoid."

A positive campaign

The presidential campaign of 2000 has been fought on remarkably positive terms. Complex issues have been debated in detail. Mudslinging has been kept to a minimum. And even negative advertising has stuck largely to the issues.

From Social Security to prescription drug coverage to tax cuts, the election has been fought largely over the candidates' promises and substantive proposals, not over past indiscretions or loaded labels such as "liberal" or "extremist."

Yet the nuances of the candidates' positions on key issues seem to have gone unnoticed by many voters.

"I haven't seen anything addressed that I felt was important," said Jef Judin, co-founder of an Internet networking company in Jackson, Miss. "It's more politics as usual. I've been disappointed."

If they haven't absorbed the debate over issues, it follows that voters might instead weigh the candidates' personal qualities above all, something that could spell trouble for Gore. The vice president is still widely seen as the less likable and trustworthy of the two candidates.

"I don't know who Gore really is," said Elliot Herskowitz, 71, a former Wall Street trader who retired to the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. "As for Bush, I think his father did a magnificent job in the gulf war. If his dad could do it, well, he looks a lot like him - maybe there's something in the genes."

That perception has made it difficult for Gore to gain traction in the campaign, even when the issues seem to favor him. Though Gore's positions are often more in line with the voters', many say they do not think he will deliver.

Emmett Schindell, a retired laborer and registered Republican in Dundalk, said that this summer, he was so fed up with both major parties that he was considering a vote for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Then, he said, he was stricken with what he delicately called "the medical thing." Four months ago, he was fighting pneumonia. Then he was told he had lung cancer.

Schindell said he has reached the limit of his $6,000 yearly insurance coverage for prescription drugs and has had to dip into his Social Security and pension money to pay for them.

It was Gore who brought the prescription drug issue into the campaign, with an ambitious and costly plan to help cover such costs through Medicare. Bush followed with a more limited plan that would rely on private insurers to offer drug coverage.

Yet Schindell said he's convinced that Bush is the true standard-bearer for prescription drug coverage.

"I think Bush is telling the truth, and I don't think Gore is," he said. "I think he's more for the people than Gore is."

Gene di Pasquale, an Aberdeen businessman, said he has usually voted Republican for president but has become concerned about the soaring cost of college education, an issue he knows Gore has tried to address by proposing tax deductions for college tuition.

But di Pasquale said he isn't convinced. "I don't trust Gore," he said. "I don't see a backbone in the man."

Such sentiments are not universal. Many voters, especially the elderly, have listened to Gore's proposals closely and said they believe he is sincere.

Susan Levy, a 62-year-old former educator who is retired and lives in North Carolina, said she could never vote for Bush because he opposes abortion rights in most cases and favors publicly funded vouchers for private schools. But her vote, which she once felt would be more a vote against Bush, is now one in favor of Gore.

"I think his knowledge base is more solid," Levy said. "I think he has the experience, and I see him as having a vision for moving into the future."

Florry Glasser, 69, a Baltimore transplant to Chapel Hill, has grown anxious about Bush's proposal to allow young workers to shift a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes - up to 15 percent - into personal investment accounts. That money, Glasser said, was meant for people nearing retirement now.

Many Republicans, too, say they have been focusing on the issues, and the more they hear, the more they say they favor Bush's ideas. From his views on rigorous education testing to his desire to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security money in the financial markets, the Texas governor has shown himself to be the candidate of better ideas, said Jeff Gordon, the owner of Jo Momma's Steak & Seafood in Edgewood, Md.

Even on traditionally Democratic causes such as reducing the cost of prescription drugs and reining in the accessibility of guns, Bush seems to have succeeded in shifting his campaign to the political center.

Gordon said he was impressed when, during the debates, Bush said he was for "instant" background checks of firearms buyers at gun shows. Though such instant checks fail to work in some cases, and though Gore favors far more stringent gun control measures, Gordon was satisfied.

"He talked about safety," Gordon said of Bush. "It was a positive note, and he did it without being out of line with his party."

Patricia Daigle, a corporate consultant and self-described staunch conservative from Clinton, Miss., just outside Jackson, said she had been upbeat earlier this summer about the economic future. But since then, she has "lost a ton of money on paper" with the stock market slide, and the oil crunch has her doubly concerned.

Gore's position - that the country needs to redouble its effort to find energy alternatives - has confirmed to her that "the man is frighteningly to the left," Daigle said.

She acknowledged that Bush's support for increasing oil exploration in the United States would mean drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and possibly in other environmentally sensitive areas. "Preserving the trees," she said with exasperation. "I mean, how many people even see those trees?"

In downtown Jackson, Miss., Frank Latham, a black businessman, has also grown decidedly sour about the economy since summer, when he boasted that his bustling restaurant, Frank's World Famous Biscuits, occupied a building that not long ago had accepted no black clients.

"Sometimes, I feel like it's starting to head backward," said Latham, who noted that economic downturns tend to hit black people particularly hard. "A lot of folks are getting disillusioned. Whites are thinking too many things are going in blacks' favor."

Economic anxieties aside, most voters remain confident that the 1990s boom will continue, regardless of who is elected president. Gore's recent efforts to claim some credit for the healthy economy of the past eight years might not succeed. Those who benefited the most from the boom, such as wealthy Wall Street executives, tend to favor Bush because of his promised tax cut.

"Everybody saying Republicans just want to give money back to the rich is foolish," said Tony Segreti, a manager with the Wall Street firm Stern and Kennedy.

"It's the huge corporations and people with capital to invest that create jobs. If you give back to the rich, then most of the time, it will - I don't want to use the word trickle - come back into the economy. I think that's No. 1 on my mind - the tax cut."

Those who have not shared in the boom are more likely to favor Gore, whom they see not as the guardian of prosperity but as the fighter for a more activist government that would deliver health coverage to the uninsured, prescription drugs for seniors and preschool for the children of working mothers who can't afford it.

"Everybody's got to pay taxes," said Susan Agoglia, a 43-year-old hairstylist laboring in the basement of a Wall Street skyscraper. "The system needs to be changed. Gore knows basically what the United States and the people in the U.S. need."

But beyond economic issues, character still looms large, perhaps a hangover from the Clinton scandals.

Memories of Clinton

Though many voters insist that their opinions of President Clinton will not influence their votes, many others say Clinton's faults have tainted their view of his vice president.

The more politically aware mention Gore's role in the Clinton fund-raising controversies of 1996. Others see the influence of Clinton as an almost subconscious association.

"Al Gore has a hands mannerism that's exactly like Clinton's," Daigle said. "It's kind of a knee-jerk thing. I see that and think, 'Uh huh, uh huh, he's a Clinton clone after all.'"

For some voters, that association became clearer after the first debate, when Gore made headlines by saying he had toured the devastation of some Texas wildfires with James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Though Gore had traveled to Texas to witness the damage, he did so with a Witt deputy, not with Witt.

It might have been a minor distinction, but the Bush campaign - and the news media - made much of it. And it had an impact.

"I guess after you boil it all down to its essentials, it gets back to credibility," said John Gee, 52, of Monterrey Park, Calif. "Gore had a slight edge until he overclaimed [in the first debate]. Then that started questions about, well, is this going to continue the old questions about the truth? Will he continue this mentality of splitting hairs to get out of trouble?"

That comparison to Clinton cuts both ways, though. For many voters, especially blacks, a vote for Gore is a vote of confidence for Clinton and his stewardship of the nation's peace and prosperity. Reginald Daniel of Prince George's County, the chief executive of a high-technology defense contractor, had nothing but kind words for the president.

"He crossed all kinds of social and racial boundaries," Daniel said. "He probably has had the most diverse administration ever."

If there is a cause for optimism for Gore, it is that the voters' negative assessments fall on both candidates. For the moment, an ambivalent electorate seems to be fixating on the vice president's shortcomings.

But the harsh eye of the voters could easily shift to Bush in the next two weeks.

Socorro Saucillo, head of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation in California, is leaning toward Bush. But she frets about his lack of experience. And the issues that still loom in her mind - the growing gap between rich and poor, the plight of the uninsured - seem to favor Gore.

As she weighed her options, she concluded that she was not satisfied with her choices. That lack of conviction, she said, could keep her uncommitted until she steps into the voting booth.

"I say I'm voting for Bush, but who knows?" she said, shrugging. "When I get in there, I may stand there and look at it and say to myself, 'Am I making the right decision?'"

Sun staff writers Susan Baer, Dan Fesperman, Ellen Gamerman, David L. Greene, Michael Stroh and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun

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