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For White Males, Bush Is Their Guy

Politics: Texas governor has loyal backing of voting bloc that is about 40% of the electorate. In recent years, only Reagan has held this group in such thrall.


DAYTON, Ohio — George Hulshult sits behind home plate at the new downtown ballpark here and tries to explain how men and women see things differently, and why George W. Bush is so popular among a certain kind of male voter.

"Gore looks like he's been babied," explained Hulshult, a 32-year-old cook who voted for Clinton in 1992, but not in 1996. "Bush looks like someone who's been around, who's seen things. I picture Gore crying. He seems very emotional. He looks like he'd break down more often."

Although Gore is narrowly leading in the race nationally, Bush has the loyal backing of voters like Hulshult, a member of a key voting bloc that makes up about 40% of the electorate--white men.

Recent polls--including one released Thursday--show Bush holding a wide lead among white males even as he trails overall. In recent history, only Ronald Reagan has held white male voters in such thrall. If Bush beats Gore this November, it will be thanks in large measure to the combined force of this gender and race gap.

If you go to the "guy" places in this Midwestern industrial city in a highly competitive state, and ask the white men you encounter why Bush is their guy, they'll give you a variety of answers.

A few raise familiar resentments about affirmative action. Many confess to knowing little about Bush the younger--he is a vague figure to them, not nearly as familiar as his father. They say they'll vote for Bush because they like the Republican platform, and also to spite a certain boomer president whose very name sends them into paroxysms of anger.

"Bill Clinton spent eight years lying to America," said Carl Lillis, 46, a retired police officer, downing a beer with buddies at a local watering hole. "Women are taken in by his [expletive]. They're willing to forgive him. The men see through him and know him for the lying [expletive] he is. Gore spent too many years with him. He's tainted by that. You can't wash that off."

A few minutes later, Lillis and two of his buddies were off to catch the opening pitch of the minor league Dayton Dragons' last game of the regular season, against the Burlington (Iowa) Bees. An informal survey of two dozen white men around the ballpark found a breakdown in loyalties similar to those in the national polls, with a conspicuous majority backing Bush.

Tom Stodd, a 38-year-old registered Republican, gave three reasons for voting for Bush that neatly summarized the GOP candidate's appeal to white men here: "Basically, the Republican values is what I like, that's how I vote. . . . I'm ready for a change [from Clinton]. . . . And I respect what Bush's father did, too."

Stodd picked a winner the last time he voted, siding with Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996. Voters in Ohio's 3rd Congressional District, centered on Dayton, have gone with the winner in the last five elections.

The city has been famous as a bellwether of political trends since the 1970s, when political commentators Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg argued in "The Real Majority" that national elections are won by those who conquer the center. Their typical "middle voter" was a "47-year-old housewife from Dayton whose husband is a machinist."

Bush, Gore Hope to Gain Voters in Dayton

This year, both Gore and Bush have visited Dayton, a gritty factory town whose fate has long been tied to the ups and downs of car companies like General Motors and Chrysler.

Older and middle-aged men in Dayton have seen the world they knew as young adults fall apart and, now, come back together again. The booming national economy has brought high-tech jobs to the region and the hope that the city's aging downtown might see a renaissance.

The new 7,000-seat stadium of the Dayton Dragons is the cornerstone of those hopes. Set amid aging warehouses and factories, it's designed in the nostalgic style of Baltimore's Camden Yards, with a brick front entrance and old-fashioned scoreboard.

The sense of optimism and good times here is Gore's biggest ally, strengthening his support among blue-collar men, most of whom are union members with traditional ties to Democrats.

"I've been real comfortable with Clinton," said John Wacaster, a 50-year-old printing press operator. "Let's face it, the country has benefited from his administration. I see my situation has improved. So I'm for the carry-over. I see all my friends, they all have work. They seem to be happy with their situation too, even though deep down they're Republicans."

A plurality of white men have voted for Republican candidates in every election since 1980, when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by a 2 to 1 ratio, according to Times exit polls. Since then, only Clinton has come close to narrowing the gap, winning 35% of the white male vote to Dole's 41%.

The gender gap has become a chasm in this year's race. This week, a Reuters poll found women supporting Gore by 21 percentage points, and men supporting Bush by 11 points. Gore had a lead among all voters of 6 points.

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