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CAMPAIGN '96

GOP's San Diego Bash Makes Noise in 'California's Heartland'

Reaction: Although most in town of Clovis only watched pieces of event, many say it struck the right chords. Others want to hear more before deciding.

August 17, 1996|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLOVIS — Here in "California's Heartland," the Republican National Convention got lousy television ratings but good reviews, with nominees Bob Dole and Jack Kemp making serious strides in their not-so-subtle seduction of undecided moderate voters.

Janna Rigby, an independent who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, found herself falling for the GOP ticket as she watched the candidates' speeches Thursday night with her Republican father and Democrat sister. "Unless something huge happens with the Democrats, that's where I'm leaning," she said.

Annette Simmons, a kindergarten teacher, blanched at Dole's attack on teachers unions but then gave him credit for "guts," and cheered his "outrage" at America's crime problem.

And a few neighborhoods away, Chris Bingham, who works a graveyard shift processing pharmaceutical orders and who went into the week doubting he could vote Republican, found himself warming to Dole. "The guy's got a great smile. You never saw that before. He looks pretty darn good for a 73-year-old."

Here where central Fresno blends into a patchwork of tree-shaded neighborhoods and rapidly disappearing farmland, few voters were at risk of convention-coverage addiction. Based on interviews throughout the week, most didn't watch the four-day event so much as absorb it in bits and pieces. And even those who had said they planned to view dutifully instead wound up renting videos, getting called in to work, or escaping the 112-degree heat by loading up the van and heading for the coast or the mountains.

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The biggest complaint from those who did watch and described themselves as political moderates was that GOP speakers spent too much time bashing President Clinton. Otherwise, they reserved their wrath for the TV networks' continuous commercials and the seemingly incessant punditry there and on PBS.

At the Rodeo Coffee Shop, in Clovis' old-town area, Frank and Mary Borges, Republicans who voted for Clinton in 1992, ate pancakes and praised the GOP for putting so many women on the podium. "What a woman speaker says, that influences me," Mary said. "I'm impressed."

At Barnum's Barber Shop, Democrat Wayne Stumpf, 59, said he voted for Clinton in the last election, but lost faith in the president's "integrity." Watching the convention cemented his decision to vote for Dole this time. "I have differences with the Christian Coalition and the right wing of the party, but to me they've settled those issues," he said.

Stumpf's views don't go unchallenged, though. "My wife is a liberal Democrat. When [New York Rep.] Susan Molinari was speaking, she kept saying, 'That's not true!' "

In fact, the Stumpfs' neck of northern Fresno might be called "Gender Gap."

A couple of streets over, Joan and Marvin Bier sat at their kitchen table, eating a dinner of tamales with the television on in the background.

"We don't have political arguments in this house," said Marvin, a registered Republican. Within 12 seconds, though, the fire department mechanic was jabbing the air with his finger, while Joan, a secretary and lifelong Democrat, waved her fork.

"What's his name, Kemp? He's already flip-flopped on three issues," she said.

The mother of three grown sons, Joan was impressed with retired Gen. Colin L. Powell's emphasis on the need for strong families. By the end of the convention though, neither her vociferous husband nor the GOP media onslaught had changed her views. "I'm going to vote for Clinton," she said.

Just down the street, independent Janna Rigby said she and her husband, a Republican, avoid talking politics until the last minute. But as Dole's daughter, Robin, spoke on Wednesday, the 37-year-old high school teacher gave running commentary, sounding like a media analyst. "All these things she's saying speak to women--the things you did with your dad. They're on the right track."

When Elizabeth Hanford Dole wandered into the audience to do a talk-show-style tribute to her husband, Rigby nodded approvingly. "I like her, and that may be a problem for the Democrats. [First Lady] Hillary [Rodham Clinton] is controversial. [Elizabeth Dole] gives the impression her husband is someone you can trust as a neighbor. I think she'll appeal to women."

Rigby's main concern, though, is with Dole's proposed 15% cut in income tax rates. "My sister, a Democrat, was asking, "How does that work?' That's what I want to know too. If I understood the tax thing, I would say 'I'll vote for Dole.' Otherwise, I'll wait till after the Democratic convention" to decide.

But for Greg and Annette Simmons, the GOP's weeklong embrace of family broke through their skepticism about Dole. By the time the candidate said it doesn't take a village to raise a child, but rather, "It takes a family . . . " he had the couple enthralled.

"The hardest thing we've ever done is have a family," Annette, 30, said, holding her 7-month-old daughter while the couple's 4-year-old chattered nearby.

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