A photo caption in yesterday's Business section misidentified Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive John Young. He was shown with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and Apple Inc. chairman John Sculley. (Published 9/18/92)

In campaign position papers and speeches, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton has repeatedly presented himself as the candidate who best understands the importance of technology in boosting American competitiveness.

On Tuesday, at a meeting in San Jose with high-tech corporate leaders, the Arkansas governor reaped the political rewards of that stance. Top executives of 30 companies -- including some of the most visible and well-known CEOs in California's Silicon Valley -- endorsed Clinton and his high-technology policy.

"These guys are builders and visionaries," said Dave Barram, vice president of Apple Computer Inc. and one of the organizers of the pro-Clinton movement. "They really don't feel America is competing well in the world. We can't be in a react mode. Bush is in a react mode."

Among the chief executives turning to Clinton are lifelong Republicans John Young, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co., and John Sculley of Apple. Both men have spent hours talking with Clinton or his advisers and they submitted a 16-page paper to the Clinton camp on high-technology issues, which they had circulated among other executives, Young said.

The endorsement came just a week after Clinton proposed a nationwide network of 170 "technology centers" to help restore the competitiveness of small and medium-sized U.S. manufacturers. Clinton also urged expanding federal funds for research to develop new products, tax credits for purchases of production equipment and a reform of antitrust laws allowing more collaboration between U.S. companies.

Several of the executives who met with Clinton in San Jose said they were impressed by Clinton's commitment to more cooperation between government and industry, a controversial ideological issue within the business community. "Most people are trained to think about a separation of the public and private sectors, but I just don't think that's what's going to work in the competitive world today," Young said.

Generally, the Bush administration takes the view that the government should support basic research and development but should not become involved in the commercialization of technology.

Clinton argues that America's small and medium-sized manufacturers -- those with 500 or fewer employees -- will be critical to future U.S. competitiveness because they can adapt well to rapidly changing markets. Such firms employ at least 8 million workers -- more than 40 percent of the manufacturing work force. But they face foreign competitors that often enjoy unfair advantages.

Staffed by engineers and technicians familiar with local manufacturing conditions and needs, Clinton's proposed technology centers would share technological information with local companies, put business executives in touch with experts, run training courses and help companies choose appropriate software and equipment.

Under the Clinton proposal, the federal government would contribute $510 million a year by 1996, a figure that would have to be matched by businesses and state and local governments.

Critics argue that such centers could become pork barrel projects and part of an unwieldy "industrial policy."

Under Clinton's plan, at least 25 centers would be for regions hard hit by defense spending cutbacks and would be part of regional technology clusters.

But defenders say that no money would be spent unless there was strong local business support.

Groups applying to set up centers will have to compete for federal grants and undergo periodic reviews by independent experts.

Senior Bush administration officials have supported the handful of such centers that exist, but have shown little interest in expanding their number.

Gene Sperling, economic policy director for the Clinton campaign, said that Clinton and his economic advisers sought out academics, business managers and economists familiar with Japan's system, and specialists who have worked with Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) to develop several such centers in this country.

The candidate also was influenced by a 1987 trip to northern Italy, where small manufacturers served by technology information centers produce a variety of high-quality goods for export.

"Clinton came back and tried to get people interested in all this," said John W. Ahlen, director of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, a state board that promotes economic development.

Hollings, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was instrumental in getting funding for seven manufacturing technology centers in Ohio, New York, South Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota and California that were authorized in the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.

Those centers have helped business managers choose and install computer software, provided advice about bank loans and financing, and helped solve technical problems ranging from adjusting a robot welding machine to controlling the flow and quality of molten aluminum used in huge casting machines.

Federal funding for the facilities is about $18 million a year.

Sperling said two leading business executives, Paul A. Allaire, chief executive of Xerox Corp., and Jerry K. Pearlman, CEO of Zenith Electronics Corp., along with several business and trade specialists, looked over Clinton's proposal at his request and suggested changes in it.

"The Clinton people are asking questions and listening," said Pearlman. "They understand that small businesses really need help in developing their skills and they understand that programs have to be market-driven."

"Gov. Clinton wanted to make sure this wasn't a pie-in-the sky proposal saying that government knows best," said Sperling. "He wanted to make sure that we not only consult academics and other experts but that we also talk with practical-minded business people."

According to Clinton, the federal money would come from switching research and development funds no longer needed for defense purposes.

Sperling said Robert Reich, a political economist and longtime Clinton adviser, and Doug Ross, former Michigan director of commerce, contributed significantly to the Clinton proposal.

Ross and others organized a manufacturing technology service for Michigan in the 1980s that was considered among the most successful such programs.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, eliminated state support for the service in 1991.

Philip P. Shapira, a Georgia Institute of Technology public policy researcher who is regarded as the leading academic expert on such centers, indirectly contributed to the Clinton proposal through his writings, Sperling said.

Shapira, who has studied Japan's industrial extension programs, says that Japan spends more than six times as much money as the United States on such programs and that small American firms often have a limited ability to understand and deal with new technologies.