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Allentown's Swing Voters Zero In on Debates, Issues

HOPE, FEAR AND POLITICS: Exploring the minds of voters * One in an occasional series


ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With just five weeks left before America elects a new president, John Evans III is a much coveted voter. The 30-year-old Army veteran is a techno-savvy professional, reads two newspapers, wears two earrings and drives a souped-up Subaru.

He also is a voter whose allegiance remains up for grabs.

While enduring a year of blathering TV pundits, Evans can count on only a few fingers what he likes about the top contenders. He embraces George W. Bush's push for teacher accountability but hates the Texas governor's stance on capital punishment. Evans is inching toward Vice President Al Gore, but can't get over what he considers an absence of new ideas.

"I guess," said Evans, who voted four years ago for Ross Perot, "I'll just have to watch the debates."

Such sentiments underscore the high stakes tonight as the two candidates meet in Boston for a televised face-off that could prove pivotal in a race shaping up as the closest presidential contest in four decades.

Victory on election day will depend on how well they play in places like Allentown. The Coal Belt city of 105,000 has a history of voter independence and a solid record as a bellwether for the key presidential battleground of Pennsylvania.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 11, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Coal Belt--A story published Oct. 3 described Allentown, Pa., as a "coal belt city." In fact, the city does not lie within the coal-producing region of Pennsylvania.

Like Evans, the state seems to be leaning toward Gore, but barely. The most recent state poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune in mid-September showed Gore leading 43% to 38%, with 12% undecided.

In many ways the real race is just beginning in the Keystone State. Voters here sometimes swing left, sometimes right, sometimes both. Pennsylvanians have elected a GOP governor and two Republicans to the U.S. Senate, but they also helped put Bill Clinton in the White House.

Tonight's debate will sway some here. But other factors could come into play as Bush and Gore fight for the state's 23 electoral votes.

Local politics could affect the top of the ticket. A fierce fight is being waged for control of the Statehouse, now in Republican hands. Efforts to get out the vote and educate the electorate could prove decisive in the presidential race, if one party proves more effective than the other at mobilizing its supporters.

In the meantime, the state has been inundated with political TV commercials. Since the primaries, Bush has spent $7 million in Pennsylvania and Gore $8.25 million, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, which keeps tabs on ad spending by the presidential candidates for The Times.

Meanwhile, the FDA's recent approval in the U.S. of the abortion pill, RU-486, could push the issue of a woman's right to choose more prominently into the mix. In Pennsylvania, where Democrats tend toward cultural conservatism, old wars could be reignited.

"Abortion politics have been fierce in this state," said Michael Young, a Penn State political science professor. "There's a danger in that for Al Gore."

On the flip side, Young sees an advantage for Gore on issues like prescription drugs and Medicare in a state with the nation's second-highest proportion of retirees.

But in Allentown, a city awash with swing voters hardened by tough economic times during the 1980s, decisions don't always come so simply.

One late afternoon, as a golden light bathed the brick homes and neat lawns of a middle-class neighborhood on Allentown's north edge, Jeff Potylycki stopped to chat.

Potylycki, 42, likes what he has seen in the last eight years from Al Gore. He considers Gore a devoted family man, "the good side" of Bill Clinton.

But he is wrestling over this presidential choice, weighing his admiration for Gore against his staunch antiabortion beliefs as a devout Roman Catholic.

In the end, Potylycki said, "I think abortion is going to be the deciding issue for me."

At John T. Gross Towers, two high-rises for the low-income elderly, they're still talking about Bush's visit a few weeks ago.

Larry Stettler wants to support the Republican but is holding out. Stettler, 55, is blind and recently suffered a stroke. He pays about $50 for medications every two weeks. And he worries that Bush might not have the best plan to help defray those budget-busting costs.

"I hope it's Bush, but I'm still listening to what others have to say," Stettler said.

Candace Potak is far from retirement, but the elderly health care issue has pushed her toward Gore. Potak, 50, recalled a retiree she watched at the drugstore, quibbling to get only half his medication because he lacked cash for it all.

"That was so sad," Potak said. "That guy worked his whole life--and that's what he got for it."

Elsewhere, Bruce Schnell groused that the presidential candidates are focusing on retirees at the expense of everyone else.

Schnell, 45, a self-employed Tupperware salesman, lacks health insurance and prays he never falls seriously ill. He considers America's economic success "the big lie," reasoning that low unemployment numbers mask a hidden reality that American businesses have stripped away health care coverage and other benefits.

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