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Tsongas' Toughest Foe in the Midwest: Demographics : Democrats: Working-class vote eludes candidate. Polls show Michigan, Illinois leaning toward Clinton.

March 14, 1992|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

ROSEVILLE, Mich. — Nick Sage, a community college student who works in a restaurant here, likes a lot of what Paul E. Tsongas has to say.

But he just can't picture the slight and soft-spoken former Massachusetts senator actually sitting in the Oval Office. So he's planning to vote for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in Tuesday's Michigan primary.

"Tsongas has some good ideas," Sage said as he worked through a slice-and-a-Coke lunch at a local pizza parlor. "But if you really think about someone running the country, he doesn't have the forcefulness. Clinton seems very energetic to me."

As the Democrats gird for Tuesday's potentially decisive showdowns here and in Illinois, the gravest threat to Tsongas' candidacy remains his inability to attract voters like Sage: working-class and blue-collar whites.

"We have to do better with those voters than we have in some other states," acknowledges Gerry Austin, a senior adviser to the Tsongas campaign.

Stark numbers underscore that conclusion. So far, Tsongas has depended primarily on the votes of people who know the difference between Perrier and Pellegrino: white, college-educated professionals earning more than $40,000 a year. By contrast, Clinton has dominated Tsongas--and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.--among blacks and working-class whites, particularly those without a college degree.

As in the Southern states that voted last Tuesday, such voters of moderate means and education traditionally predominate in these gritty, industrial states. That means that while these Midwestern contests geographically represent "neutral turf," as Tsongas aides have argued, demographically they favor Clinton.

In New Hampshire and Maryland, sites of Tsongas' most important victories this year, college-educated voters made up roughly half the electorate; but in the 1988 Illinois presidential primary, voters with college degrees cast only 38% of the ballots, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. Although exit polls from 1988 are not available for Michigan because the state held a caucus that year, private surveys suggest that college-educated voters may constitute even somewhat less of the vote here next week.

Thus, many Democratic analysts believe that if Tsongas cannot attract more voters who work with their hands, he may soon be looking for another line of work himself. "If his appeal stays with the same demographic groups as it has been for the first months of the campaign, he loses," insists Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

New polls released Friday reinforce the point. Surveys by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Corp. show Clinton opening substantial leads in Illinois and Michigan, largely on the strength of votes from blacks and whites without a college degree. In Michigan, Clinton led Tsongas by a 48-22 margin, with Brown trailing at 11% and 19% undecided, Mason-Dixon found. In Illinois, the Mason-Dixon poll found Clinton leading Tsongas by a similar 46% to 25%, with Brown at 14% and 15% undecided.

Another poll released Friday by Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research showed Clinton with 34%, Tsongas with 19% and Brown with 10%, with 37% undecided. But that poll measured voter preferences from last Sunday through Thursday, while the Mason-Dixon survey covered only Wednesday and Thursday--the period after Clinton's strong showing on Super Tuesday.

That same general leaning toward Clinton also was apparent in interviews with potential primary voters this week in Macomb County--a virtually all-white, largely blue-collar suburb northeast of Detroit. Macomb is renowned as a breeding ground for so-called Reagan Democrats: middle-class whites who grew up in homes with a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the mantle but who in the 1980s became unhappy with taxes and liberal programs--such as affirmative action--that they perceived as favoring blacks and defected to the GOP. If Tsongas is to peel away blue-collar voters from Clinton, he will have to do it in places like this.

Above all, conversations in Macomb County suggest that none of the Democratic candidates fits perfectly with these voters. As opponents of protectionism who back the negotiation of a free trade agreement with Mexico, Tsongas and Clinton are both at odds with overwhelming sentiment among Democrats in this import-scarred state. Alone among the contenders, Brown opposes the "fast-track" negotiations for a free trade agreement with Mexico, but his eccentric reputation limits his appeal.

Like many interviewed here, Gregg Velez, an electrical contractor from Mt. Clemens, says he does not understand why the Democrats cannot find a candidate more appealing to people like himself, who voted for President Bush four years ago but would like to switch now.

"I'm ashamed they can't come up with somebody who could be a little more competitive than what they have," he says.

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