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Michigan Less Than Dazzled by Clinton : Campaign: The President asks voters to remember progress made since he's been in office. But auto workers appear unexcited at rally.

October 12, 1994|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEARBORN, Mich. — Greeted by an unexcited crowd and avoided by unenthusiastic fellow Democrats, President Clinton brought his campaign message to one of the fall election's most important battlegrounds Tuesday, telling voters that they face a choice between the future and the past.

"I ask every American in the next four weeks not just to think of their discontents with the political system, although there's plenty (of) good reason to be discontented, but to remember the problems we found 20 months ago," Clinton said. "Remember the progress we're making. Remember how many of them (Republicans) fought us every step of the way. And remember now what they want to do to take us back when we have so much to do to keep going forward."

Clinton provided his listeners a lengthy account of what he had achieved in Washington so far--from the Family Leave Act to a sharply reduced federal deficit--and claimed credit for the improving economy that has created 4.6 million jobs in 20 months. And in keeping with the image he and his strategists wish to present, he used the word "fight" or a variant 14 times in a 20-minute speech.

"Our strategy," he said, is "fighting for the future." Republicans, he insisted, offer a path that goes "back to the 1980s, to trickle-down economics."

But if Clinton's goal was to fire up a traditionally Democratic crowd, the attempt fell flat. Ford shut down its Mustang assembly line for three hours for Clinton, freeing several hundred auto workers to stand outside in a massive parking lot and listen to him speak. The crowd laughed at a few of Clinton's jokes, applauded some of his punch lines, but mostly listened in silence--not hostile, just not apparently particularly interested.

Precisely the same might be said of the larger electorate here and in the surrounding counties, where Democrats must win large margins to counter the heavily Republican areas elsewhere in the state. With the state always closely divided between the two parties, the results here are a good bellwether of how the national picture is likely to turn out on Election Day.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Michigan, but their voters traditionally turn out at a lower rate, according to pollster Ed Sarpolus. So far this year, with Democrats demoralized and Republicans fired up, the partisan gap could close to seven percentage points.

Although black voters seem likely to turn out at their usual rate, older, conservative white Democrats in Detroit's suburbs are telling pollsters that they plan to stay home--a prospect that could sink Democratic candidates by the boatload. Five of the 10 congressional seats now held by Michigan Democrats are in jeopardy, as is the Democratic Senate seat being vacated by Donald W. Riegle Jr., who is retiring. What happens in those Senate and House contests will go far toward determining whether next month's election is merely a bad day for Clinton and his party or a disaster.

Clinton is not as wildly unpopular here as he is, for example, in many Southern states. A Sarpolus poll released by the Detroit Free Press Tuesday shows the state's voters almost evenly split on their attitudes toward the President--50% unfavorable and 46% favorable. But here as elsewhere, the opponents have a clear edge on intensity and the GOP is "milking that anti-Clinton feeling for all it's worth," said Bill Ballinger, publisher of a newsletter on Michigan politics. The state's Republican campaign committees have even begun running ads trying to tie state legislative candidates to the President, he noted.

So far the Republican approach appears to be prevailing, at least in the Senate contest, which the GOP almost certainly must win if the party is to capture control of the chamber. Both candidates--Republican Spencer Abraham, a former party official and aide to Vice President Dan Quayle, and Democratic Rep. Bob Carr, who represents the Lansing area--are little known statewide, and neither has generated much excitement among voters. But Abraham holds a narrow lead--43% to 38% in the Free Press poll--that largely seems to reflect voters' desire so far to choose a generic Republican name over a Democratic one.

Neither candidate has made a point of party identity. Abraham tells voters that his father was a Democrat. Carr points out that his parents "were both Republicans until they died."

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