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President Had Right Address

By Dan Balz and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 25, 1996; Page A01

TEANECK, N.J., JAN. 24 – President Clinton had just stepped away from the lectern in the House chamber after delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday night when Rosemarie O'Shea started to applaud.

"I take back what I said," said O'Shea, 49, who before the speech had complained that Clinton missed the message of the 1994 election for drastic change, less government and more attention to moral values. "Before, I didn't think he listened to the concerns of the people, but hearing this speech – my God, he hit just about everything."

O'Shea was one of 10 undecided voters in this closely watched swing state who came together at the request of The Washington Post to watch and react to Clinton's speech and the response of Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). Exasperated by the partisan political impasse that has led to government shutdowns and failure to reach agreement on a federal budget, they regarded the evening as the curtain-raiser for an election they called crucial for their future.

Clinton won the evening by a mile with a message that to these voters transcended the partisan rancor of Washington. And they had an extremely negative, almost visceral reaction to Dole and his hard-line address. "Extreme right," was the way Richard Bettini, 49, a Perot voter who runs a family-owned surgical supply business, assessed Dole's speech.

But there was a potential problem for the president despite the mostly positive reviews. None of the voters was persuaded by Clinton's bullish view of the economy, especially here in the state where AT&T has headquarters, and where 6,000 of the company's 40,000 layoffs will occur. An administration official said that in focus groups conducted for the White House, there was also an "undercurrent" of disbelief about Clinton's claims of what he has done for the economy.

All 10 of the voters said they have to see and hear much more before deciding how to vote in November. But overall this focus group preferred Clinton's conciliatory message to the partisan belligerence they said they have heard from Washington in the last month and felt they heard from Dole Tuesday night. "Sincerity" is the word used by Robert Aitken, 37, a local Republican activist, to characterize the president. Two others used the same word.

"Caring," added Suzanne Murphy, 39, a working mother of 8-year-old twin boys whose husband is a firefighter and who voted in 1992 for President George Bush.

Jerry Quirk of Bergenfield, 43, a medical writer, took a more skeptical view. "Tell the people what they want to hear," was his assessment of Clinton.

But any negative views toward Clinton paled in the face of the reaction to the 72-year-old Dole. Even before the speeches, the voters expressed grave doubts about his ability to serve as president because of his age, dismissing him as "the old guard," "very old," "too old."

After Dole's response, they complained about the message as well as the man. Quirk, a Republican, said he believes Republicans have a historic opportunity to win the White House and implement their ambitious agenda for change, but may "shoot themselves in the foot" with Dole as the GOP nominee. "To me, he's not a viable candidate," Quirk said.

"A lot of wind, talk," said Bush-voter Murphy.

Dole's best review came from Joseph Butera, who at 66 had never before watched him speak. Butera said he was more impressed than he expected, but liked Clinton better.

These 10 voters are not a scientific sample of the country, but in 1992 four voted for Clinton, four for Bush and two for independent Ross Perot. Four identified with the Democratic Party, three with the GOP and three called themselves independent.

These voters were fearful that the country is off track but still hopeful of a resolution, and repeatedly characterized themselves as "the center," the people whom politicians in Washington are ignoring as they play "games" over the budget. They said Clinton came far closer than Dole to identifying with that center on Tuesday night.

"I actually see {Clinton} speaking more for America than {for} the Democratic Party," said Max Rodriguez, 24, a graduate student. "I always felt Reagan and Bush were very pro-party. I think {Dole} is too. I don't like that. I don't just vote for the Republican Party because I'm a Republican."

These voters are struggling to sort out conflicting feelings about Clinton and the Republican Congress. When asked to grade each side's performance over the past year, they gave remarkably similar assessments. Neither got A's or F's – mostly B's and C's – reflecting a jury that is very much out on the question of which party they believe speaks for America.

They said they like the momentum for change represented by the new Republicans, and saluted the hard-line freshman members for "stirring the kettle" in Washington. "They do need young blood in there, but also the knowledge of the older ones," said Rebecca Barksdale, an executive secretary at a volunteer center.

As a group, they found Clinton's appeal for "common ground," deftly co-opting many Republican themes and praising some Republican ideas, far more compelling than Dole's fighting words.

"Dole didn't talk about anything they agreed on – at all," Rodriguez said. "So I think Clinton was smarter in the sense that he did speak about things he has bipartisan support on."

"I think he really hit," said Murphy, who as a mother also liked Clinton's emphasis on education. Aitken agreed: "I think Clinton did hit on it and all Dole did was defend himself."

Dole, attempting to answer criticism from conservative Republican activists that he is a deal-cutting compromiser, lost this audience. "Every public official must locate a place in his heart where compromise ends," he said, but these voters, who live in a state better known for political moderation, were looking for the point where partisan confrontation ends and compromise begins.

"I'm sorry," O'Shea said, "but government is compromise. I don't want anybody to compromise what I believe in, but you have to get on with it."

The budget impasse symbolized for everyone all that is wrong with politics in America. Most of the participants are following the debate carefully on television, but after months of wrangling and even after Tuesday night's speeches, none saw enough difference between the two sides to justify a government shutdown.

"It's all politics," said Josephine Sansano, a secretary with three children, "because nobody seems to know what the differences are, what they're fighting for."

They reacted angrily to the partisan posturing in Washington – the "smutty faces" of Republicans scowling at Clinton's applause lines, one said – as if watching a sports contest whose rules they don't understand, and don't particularly want to learn.

Their confusion over exactly what divides Clinton and the Republican Congress in the budget impasse emerged as a powerful symbol of the distance they perceive between their own world and Washington.

"Both parties are at odds and they're forgetting they're supposed to be representing the people, not their self-interest," said Quirk.

Aitken bitterly complained that Congress and Clinton think they can play by different rules than he must as owner of his own business. Speaking of the budget impasse, he erupted: "If this were private business, it wouldn't take this long. They'd be out of business." "It's a big game to them," said Barksdale, "and they have to stop playing around, because they're playing with us."

On the economy, everyone saw Clinton's bullish employment statistics as grossly distorted.

"People keep talking about AT&T with this big, huge, massive layoff, but the reality is people have been constantly losing their jobs," Barksdale said. She added that her social services center is flooded with volunteers who need something to do "because so many people don't have any jobs."

Overall, however, the group said that Clinton spoke far more directly than Dole about the problems that concern them, mentioning education, interest rates and television violence. They were even more emphatic in choosing the president as the one who offered a clearer vision of where he would lead the country.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the Republican triumph in the 1994 elections, Clinton's critics dismissed him as irrelevant. But in the eyes of all but one of these voters, Clinton appeared more presidential than Dole on Tuesday night, though they emphasized that the setting greatly favored Clinton.

As a group, they said that Clinton's leadership skills have improved in the year since the Republicans took over Congress. But they were equally convinced that Republicans have gained momentum in the same period.

But the fear of the group's Republicans was that a Dole candidacy could in fact blow it. "What Republican Party put him out there?" demanded GOP activist Aitken. "I didn't say, Go ahead.' "

For all their frustrations, the group remained hopeful that the November election offers an opportunity to right the course of politics and the country, and they agreed there are big stakes.

"I see it as very important now that I have a child," said Monique Farb, 29, who voiced fears that the country is "going down the tubes" for her generation.

What exactly is at stake in November, the voters were asked. Rodriguez, who went to graduate school only after failing to find a job after college, responded immediately: "The future of the country."

Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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