Norristown, Pa. — Patricia Buckwalter thinks the two presidential candidates are acting like children. A lot of her neighbors agree. Door-to-door interviews with swing voters in this community northwest of Philadelphia last week disclosed widespread disquiet over this year's apparent campaign strategy - bash your opponent.
``The problem with the campaign right now is that [the candidates] are not covering any issues,'' says Robert McCall, an insurance company supervisor. ``They are so busy screaming at each other ... you wouldn't know what they are for or against.'' Mr. McCall considers himself an independent.
The voters of Norristown - one of a number of similar cities considered by pollsters to be bellwethers for how undecided, middle-class Americans will cast their ballots in November - object to what they see as negative campaigning.
``What bothers me right now is the mudslinging in this campaign,'' says Mrs. Buckwalter, a Norristown homemaker. ``They are just slandering each other. There is nothing said about their issues at all.''
Yet many political imagemakers believe that ``negative campaigning'' is effective, and the interviews also afforded some support for that belief.
``The public will tell you they hate the negative campaigning,'' says Rick Robb, a business consultant who ran President Reagan's 1980 campaign in Pennsylvania. ``They despise it, they deplore candidates that use it. And then you ask them one question about one of the candidates, and the fact they point out is one of the negative things that was brought up by his opponent.''
Still, some voters were so disgusted that they said they were going to sit this election out. Several unregistered residents said they weren't going to bother registering because the candidates and the campaign were so disappointing.
People in each of the 37 households visited in different sections of this largely blue-collar community were asked what they thought were the most important issues facing the country. The issue mentioned most often was the economy, embracing the effects of taxes, inflation, and the deficit. Concerns about the environment and the rising cost of health care tied for second and third places and were shared by respondents in both parties.
Worries about social security and care for the elderly ranked fourth in the number of times they were mentioned, followed by foreign affairs, education, drugs, arms control, child care, abortion, and national defense.
Most of those voters interviewed, like Arthur Dudkiewicz, remain undecided. A Democrat who supported Mr. Reagan in 1980 and then Walter Mondale in 1984, Mr. Dudkiewicz, a local carpenter, is leaning toward Vice-President George Bush.
``He [Bush] doesn't have any direct motivation. He's an offspring of Reagan. He has no self-direction,'' Dudkiewicz says. ``Dukakis, on the other hand, has self-direction, he has goals.''
Why then, is he leaning toward Mr. Bush? ``Through the 70s ... when the Democrats were in, things were bad. Republicans brought things back up. I'd hate to see us lose that,'' he says. Mr. Dudkiewicz likened government to a relay race. ``There is a chance that you will carry the baton on, or you'll drop it - and that's lost time.''
About 50 percent of the householders interviewed said they were undecided. About one in five of the undecided voters are leaning toward Governor Michael Dukakis, and over one in three are leaning toward Bush.
Bush's lead among these voters may reflect optimism about their economic futures. Asked about the future, only 14 percent thought their situation would be worse, 38 percent said the same, and 46 percent thought it would be better. Asked to look back over the last eight years, about 70 percent felt they were better off than they were in 1980. Only 1 in 20 felt they had lost ground, and 25 percent thought they were about the same. (As the survey was not a scientific sampling, these figures reflect only the opinions of those interviewed.)
Yet almost half of the Republicans surveyed were still undecided, citing a number of reasons for their misgivings over the GOP nominee. Several offered that Bush's choice of Dan Quayle as his running mate was a major stumbling block. Other reasons given included questions about Bush's stewardship of the CIA, concerns that he is not a strong enough leader, and his association with the Iran-contra affair.
But a major hurdle for Mr. Dukakis is the fact that most of these voters clearly prefer Bush at the helm of the nation's foreign policy interests.