Emphasizing traditional values and more jobs puts Ronald Reagan on the right road to the industrial heartland. But he has a long way to go before he can win enough blue-collar votes to be president, or to achieve the party realignment many Republicans foresee. That, at least, was the signal transmitted in an intense political discussion with a group of representative citizens here.
The group was assembled by Peter Hart, a well-known Washington pollster, who uses such discussions to gauge the feelings and logic behind the results of national polls. Hart chose Canton, factory town 50 miles south of Cleveland, because it was the home of William McKinley, the president who used the symbol of the "full dinner pail" to forge an alliance between the Republican Party and the blue-collar workers at the turn of the century.
The group was comprised of six men and five women, all of them white Christians and working people, but with a diversity of occupation, income and political affiliation. Hart started by asking them to describe in a few words their feelings about the past decade.
"Confused, discouraged and looking for somebody to lead us right," said Gale Ritchey, a 60-year-old Catholic Democrat who works as a purchasing supervisor. "In trouble," said Carol Williams, a 50ish Republican Protestant who, after raising a family, returned to work as a receptionist. "There's a negative attitude," said Sandy Young, 40, a teacher and one of two in the group who identified themselves as liberal Democrats.
Viewed on the economy were solicited. "I've gone backwards," said John Steffan, a 46-year-old Democrat who was obliged to take a job in a sanitorium after the company he was with folded. Others spoke of "disillusion," "difficulty making ends meet" and having to take "second jobs" Virtually everybody accepted as the right way out of the bind "cutting government expenses."
The issue of the country's defense posture was raised. Most of the men agreed that more had to be spent. "We have to be strong enough to tell the Russians where we stand," said Dell Alenandrini, a key cutter in a security systems plant. But the women had doubts. "There's no way my son is going to fight," declared Marg Charnock, a beautician.
The group was asked what they wanted to see in a president. "Leadership," somebody said, and several defined that as "someone who says what he really thinks, and sticks by what he believes." Truman and Roosevelt were both cited as examples. So was Eisenhower. Then everybody fell to complaining about what one called the "poor choice we have now."
At that point, Hart popped the question of the evening: for whom would you vote if the election were today? Nobody offered an enthusiastic answer, and two of the 11 refused to choose. Two others, both Democrats, said they'd vote for Carter. The beautician said she'd vote for Ted Kennedy. Two more, one a Democrat and one an independent, chose John Anderson. Four named Reagan.
The most politically significant vote, Hart felt, was that cast by David Keim, a 32-year-old steelworker and union member who listed his religion as Catholic, his party as Democratic and his political outlook as "conservative." He said: "Today, I'm for Reagan. hI agree with him that abortion is wrong. And ERA is wrong. Still, I might change."
Hart asked what impact the convention in Detroit had made. Only two of the 11 had even watched. One -- a man who expressed hawkish feelings on defense and conservative views on the economy -- came away with negative feelings. He said: "I sat in front of the television and said to myself, 'I can't see that man as president of our country.'"
Others were then asked why they did not favor Reagan. Almost all gave ineffectiveness as a reason and cited "inexperience" and "the difficulty of working with a Democratic Congress.
A series of "what if" questions wound up the evening. The first was: what would you expect Ronald Reagan to do as president if the Russians invaded Pakistan? Most of the men thought he would take military action, but couldn't be more precise. The women thought he would do nothing.
The second question was: what would you expect Ronald Reagan to do as president if unemployment hit 12 percent? Almost everybody said: "Cut taxes." Almost nobody thought cutting taxes would do any good.
Overcoming the "ineffectiveness" perception promises to be hard for Reagan.
For the general mood seems to be deeply cynical. Repeatedly, members of the group complained that all they knew about the candidates came from the media, which they didn't trust. Toward the end, when asked what Reagan would do about 12 percent unemployment, one person said with a laugh: "Invade Pakistan."