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GOP Makes Pitch for Votes of Centrists in State's 'Heartland'

Convention: Moderates in the Fresno area liked Powell's speech. But they're not ready to pass final judgment.


CLOVIS, Calif. — If another blackout snaps off the power here, missing coverage of the GOP convention won't make many Top 10 complaint lists.

Still, as each day's heat drops into the 90s, some Central Valley residents are clicking on their TVs to catch a few prime-time snatches of the San Diego bash.

For the Republican Party, the most important reason for all the hoopla and speechifying is to impress the shrinking pool of undecided voters needed to turn the polls around. And in "California's heartland," the sort of independents and centrists who tell pollsters "not so fast" are watching for signs that they should vote GOP.

On Monday, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell did a good job of soothing moderates' worries about what the GOP is all about. Tuesday's keynoter, New York Rep. Susan Molinari, got mixed reviews.

Regardless, the ticket doesn't read Powell-Molinari, so these voters plan to wait for the rest of the show before making their final judgments.

If Molinari were envisioning an audience as she stared into the camera, Monique Tremaine might well have been it. Tremaine watched while seated cross-legged on the floor of her soon-to-be-ex-husband Tim's office-apartment. Her 2-year-old daughter sat beside her.

Too busy to have focused yet on the presidential race, the 26-year-old mother, graduate psychology student, waitress, and juvenile home supervisor remains undecided, still sorting things out.

When Molinari talked about helping single mothers and families and children, her eyes brightened. But Molinari failed to deliver any meaningful solutions, Tremaine said. When the congresswoman talked about a $1,000 tax credit for children, Tremaine rolled her eyes.

"I see her," said Tremaine, "as somebody who has just never had to experience what the majority of people have experienced. She doesn't strike me as having any kind of clue of what it's like for most people."

But a few blocks away, secretary Joan Bier, 60, agreed with Molinari's view of the American Dream. "I think that's what we all strive for, making life better for our children," the mother of three grown sons said.

An independent-voting Democrat in a brusquely Republican family, Bier was nudged a bit toward her family's views by Molinari and Powell. "They were good speeches," she said.

The Fresno area is thought by campaign strategists to embrace a middle-America, "sensible center" ideology.

"The Central Valley is critically important to any margin of victory the Dole-Kemp ticket will have," said Ken L. Khachigian, manager for Dole's California campaign effort.

Here--where the conservative, largely rural 19th Congressional District intersects the Democrat-rich city of Fresno--the partisan split hopscotches from door to door, with many independent voters thrown into the mix. But fashioning a pitch to this group is like using a single combine to pick the area's dozens of crops.

Nineteen-year-old Lisa Shields remains an undecided voter in a family of Democrats. Home from college for the summer, she caught part of the convention on TV news and has seen nothing to make her join the GOP.

She had discussed Powell in one of her college classes, she said, and was told that many blacks don't think the retired general represents their views. "So it's kind of hard for me to take a lot of what he says about division and unity [in the party] to heart, because he's lived so far above so many blacks," she said.

But John Wong, a first-generation Chinese American, said that Powell's message of inclusion and his willingness to speak up for abortion rights nudged him from indecision toward the Bob Dole-Jack Kemp ticket.

"He talked about the Republican Party being formed by Lincoln and all those things. I liked it real well."

Then there is Chris Bingham, 43, who watched the opening sessions before heading off to work the graveyard shift processing pharmaceutical orders.

The dominant decorative motif in the small Clovis home Bingham shares with his wife, Barbara, might be expected to give his viewpoint away. The deer heads, bobcat pelt and bow-hunting gear on the walls reflect deep disagreement with President Clinton on gun control and other issues.

But Bingham's bank account puts him at odds with Dole on some issues.

"A tax break on capital gains? Excuse me? Who does that really benefit?" Bingham asked. "Not the majority of people, who don't have the income to invest."

Bingham worked for 19 years as a grocery clerk at a market in Clovis, where he has lived since 1964. A few years back, the owners convinced the workers that they no longer needed a union. His job security disappeared, he said, so he decided to look elsewhere.

But Bingham said he doesn't feel right simply voting his pocketbook.

On Monday, when Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) took to the podium to highlight GOP themes--less government, lower taxes, welfare reform--Bingham stuck his hands out like a set of scales.

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