GOP suburanites tough sell for Bush

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

But focus groups find Gore facing own skeptics

JOLIET, Ill. – Rose Madison says she really liked it when George W. Bush called himself a "compassionate conservative."

"I thought, here's a Republican I could really live with," said the 52-year-old social worker, an independent whose past votes have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. But her support for Mr. Bush waned as he detailed his views, and it vanished when he picked former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate.

"I had a very hard time believing he can be a centrist Republican with Cheney as a running mate," added Ms. Madison, who now leans toward Democrat Al Gore.

Three of the eight other people who gathered in a pollster's living room in this blue-collar Chicago suburb also said their initial enthusiasm for Mr. Bush has flagged, though two said they still might vote for him.

If Mr. Bush is to win the White House, he needs to win back some of the suburban Republicans who deserted the GOP in 1992 and 1996 to support Mr. Clinton. To examine his chances, The Dallas Morning News and Copley News Service convened 29 suburban voters with predominantly Republican backgrounds in three focus groups – in two homes and at the offices of Sprint PCS, a communications firm.

The results, while not scientific, mirrored the pattern of recent polls showing that Mr. Gore, like Mr. Clinton, is winning roughly half of the suburban vote.

Shifting allegiances

The most dramatic evidence of the Texas governor's problems emerged in the upscale northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where several longtime Republicans said they now lean toward Mr. Gore.

One of them was Stephen Sickle, a 71-year-old retired oil company marketing executive who said he had never before voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.

"It tears me up inside," he said. Although he thinks the vice president "lacks leadership," he said he felt that Mr. Bush "just hasn't paid his dues. He's a likable enough chap but he's just not presidential."

To be sure, despite Mr. Sickle's defection, many who stuck with the GOP in the 1990s are supporting Mr. Bush.

"I strongly back Republicans regardless of the candidates," said Zindy Wilde, 27, a financial analyst for Sprint who grew up in Richardson but moved to Chicago four years ago. Although she supports the Texas governor, she said, "I think he's arrogant."

Likewise, some who currently favor Mr. Gore had a less than positive attitude toward him.

"I'm leaning toward Gore, but I think he'll be ineffective in office," said Kimberly Sloan, 26, a Sprint channel manager who said she turned away from Mr. Bush in part because he gave "sarcastic" responses in an interview in which he was unable to identify some foreign leaders.

Still deciding

Some potential Gore voters indicated they could still vote for Mr. Bush.

"Each week it changes," said Linda Joslin, 52, a speech pathologist who voted in 1992 and 1996 for Ross Perot and who lived in Texas and overseas before her husband retired from the oil business.

She liked Mr. Gore's choice of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate "because he did very much speak out against Clinton." But she didn't like it when Mr. Lieberman campaigned in New York for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and said she liked Mr. Bush more lately "because he's come out on the issues."

"I think the debates will probably be the thing that will push me over the top," she said.

Others also said the debates, which begin next week, would be decisive.

'The finish line'

"They'll be the finish line in my mind," said Mark McHale, 35, Sprint's communications director, who broke a GOP voting pattern when he voted for Mr. Clinton in 1996. He described Mr. Bush as "somewhat untested" but said he feared that Mr. Gore was too committed to "big government."

Pollster Mike McKeon, who works for both Republicans and Democrats in the Chicago suburbs, said his recent surveys show that Mr. Gore has overcome an earlier advantage for Mr. Bush but that "there's still movement in this thing."

"Gore has the momentum, but he doesn't have a lock on it," Mr. McKeon added. "He's in the driver's seat, but he's not driving the bus yet."

He added that one reason for the GOP decline in the suburbs is that "the suburbs aren't what they used to be. You can't really tell the difference between them and half the neighborhoods in Chicago."

Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based pollster who recently conducted a statewide survey showing Mr. Gore with a double-digit lead in Illinois, said he was not surprised to hear that some voters cooled toward Mr. Bush when he began to detail his positions.

"When he was forced to define himself on the issues, he couldn't go on with some of these umbrella themes," he said, referring to the "compassionate conservatism" that Mr. Bush used earlier.

Nader supporters

While many voters were critical of Mr. Clinton, none said that would influence their vote. There was no interest among these voters in Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan but some in Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

Jodi Wartenberg, 41, a one-time social worker and business owner who now stays home with her 5-year-old, said that although she has generally voted Democratic, she will vote for Mr. Nader.

"It's time that I stopped voting for the lesser of two evils," she said. And she said she was angry about Mr. Nader's likely exclusion from the debates.

Sitting alongside her, Patrick McGuire, 47, an English tutor who voted for Mr. Nader in 1996, said he was torn between backing him again or voting for Mr. Gore. The reason, he said, is "I fear what a Bush administration would do to the areas that are important to me like job safety, health and education." He said he was "more frightened of Bush" because of the Cheney choice.

Down to the issues

Some voters said they were affected by specific issues.

Michael Brenner, 52, the nonpartisan mayor of Highland Park but a consistent supporter of GOP presidential candidates, said he considered voting for Mr. Gore when he chose Mr. Lieberman, because he is Jewish, but switched back to Mr. Bush when the Connecticut senator "did a little flip-flop on affirmative action.''

"Neither candidate overly impressed me," he said. "I think maybe I'm doing it because I'd receive some tax relief, to be honest with you."

Jimie Wheeler, 52, a trade association manager who worked for former Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon but has often voted Republican, said he was torn between his economic interest, his desire for a tax cut, and his concern about the future of Social Security, Medicare and the cost of prescription drugs.

"In a very selfish way, I'm voting for personal gain," said Mr. Wheeler, who remains undecided.

Richard Wiles, 52, a Joliet tool maker, said the Second Amendment, which protects the right to own firearms, "is the single most important issue to me." A solid Bush supporter, he said, "I can't vote for anybody who is not going to uphold the Constitution."

Abortion not critical

No one in any of the three groups said he or she was voting on the basis of opposition to abortion. But three women in the Highland Park group said their support of abortion rights influenced them to back Mr. Gore, including Mary Francoeur, 69, a retired counselor for Planned Parenthood who voted for George Bush in 1988 and Mr. Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Others said personal characteristics were more important.

R. Bruce Johnson, 47, a high school English teacher in Libertyville, said that although he has mostly voted Republican, he leans toward Mr. Gore.

He said he liked Mr. Bush's primary challenger, Arizona Sen. John McCain, because "he seemed like a very strong leader, an individual who was going to stand up for certain issues even if they weren't popular."

But he said he didn't see Mr. Bush "as an individual who is strong. I see him as following on his father's coattails."

Rick Mears, 34, a Sprint senior marketing manager who normally votes Republican, said he liked the fact that Mr. Bush was "anti-big government" and called Mr. Gore "not trustworthy."

"How do you go where you see somebody in red saffron robes and not realize that they're monks and don't have money, and you go there for a fund-raiser and say you don't know that," he explained, referring to the vice president's 1996 visit to a Buddhist temple in California.

Some said they wished the choices were better.

"I don't like either of them," said Virginia "Bunny" Collins, 70, a Republican who hosted the Highland Park group and is undecided.