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As Clinton Courts Swing Voters, Gore Tends to the Urban Base : Campaign's division of labor is no accident. GOP takes similar tack, sending Kemp to cities.

September 24, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Vice President Al Gore emerged from his glistening limousine one day last week into a gray drizzle and dedicated a new low-income housing project on a particularly bleak block on New York's Lower East Side.

He spoke of "compassion" and "hope" and the need to tear down the "towers of despair" that imprison the urban poor. He invoked the "great progressive tradition" of activism on behalf of the downtrodden embodied by Robert F. Kennedy, for whom the new 96-unit residence was named.

That same day, President Clinton addressed high school pep rallies in Westland, Mich., and Flossmoor, Ill., middle-class suburbs of Detroit and Chicago. He talked brightly of bridges to the future, making no mention of the poverty and unemployment that rack the urban cores just a few miles away.

This Clinton-Gore division of labor is no accident.

One of Gore's central jobs this campaign season is to secure the Democratic base, which includes African Americans and white urban liberals. For the most part, he's doing it below the radar of the national media, which treats his appearances as sidebars to the main presidential story--if at all.

Clinton, on the other hand, is courting so-called swing voters--white suburbanites, women, Reagan Democrats and European ethnics--who have been key to determining recent presidential campaigns.

Clinton woos these voters as a "New Democrat," one who has moved beyond the liberal philosophy once so sacred to his party. And, so far, he has avoided settings that might associate him with such "Old Democrat" concerns as homelessness, poverty and urban decay.

Indeed, while Gore's recent itinerary has taken him to a crime-ridden section of central Philadelphia as well as the stop in New York, some of Clinton's recent stops included virtually all-white gatherings in Indianola, Iowa, and Wingo, Ky.

"Cities have been out of fashion for two decades in American politics," said Ron Walters, professor of government at the University of Maryland. "The whole New Democrat approach is to compete for the suburban vote, which is more conservative and more race-conscious as a consequence.

"This was a winner for Clinton in 1992; he recaptured some of the Reagan Democrats, and now they're following that playbook all over again," said Walters, an prominent African American political analyst and a onetime advisor to former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

Signing the Republican-sponsored welfare bill was part of the strategy of catering to the concerns of middle-class voters while taking for granted the support of the poor and minorities, Walters added.

White House political advisors acknowledge that there has been a de facto division of duties that puts Clinton in white middle-class precincts where unemployment is down and housing values are up, while Gore tends to the nation's more distressed communities.

"I do think the president is largely engaged in a campaign based on swing voters, largely speaking to swing voters [while Gore] is appealing to the base, below swing voters," said a senior member of the Clinton reelection team.

But other officials insisted that Clinton does not intend to neglect urban audiences and will schedule several urban appearances before election day.

"Things could change in October," said senior presidential advisor George Stephanopoulos. "You'll see a mix and match" of events and an occasional role-reversal between Clinton and Gore.

"The main thing is to make sure at any time that you're covering all the bases," Stephanopoulos added.

Campaigning by the Republican ticket has been marked by a similar split. For the most part, presidential nominee Bob Dole has steered clear of urban settings and issues. But his running mate, Jack Kemp, has been a surprisingly frequent visitor to core-city neighborhoods, especially given the small likelihood that the GOP team ultimately will win many votes in such places.

Kemp, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who long has pushed for the GOP to make greater efforts to attract support from minorities, has stumped in poorer parts of Newark, N.J.; Memphis; Los Angeles; New York; and Chicago since the Republican convention in mid-August, bringing a message of hope and "empowerment."

He also has sought to make an issue of Clinton's absence from these locales.

Speaking at a public housing project in Memphis last week, Kemp charged that the president had "abandoned the inner cities" in his courtship of white voters. He said that the administration had "absolutely no urban policy" and a Dole administration would address urban troubles through tax cuts and establishment of inner-city enterprise zones.

Clinton, who leveled much the same charges against President Bush in 1992, ran for the presidency promising new activism on behalf of the cities.

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