Candidates make an impression, but will voters follow through?

If this year's presidential election is supposed to be a dud, somebody forgot to tell the voters. True, neither Michael Dukakis nor George Bush is setting records for inspirational campaigning. But a stroll around South Hills Village, a suburban Pittsburgh shopping mall, suggests that both candidates have reached many voters.

Dan and Dawn Bulford, registered Democrats, say they're going to cast an anti-Bush vote this November. ``I feel he's too easily led,'' says Mrs. Bulford, who's wary of presidential advisers. ``I think that was Reagan's biggest problem.''

``I like Bush,'' says Fred Martin, an investment banker sitting outside The Gap while his wife and son buy blue jeans. ``Dukakis's really liberal philosphy has to be paid for.'' And neither he, nor his business friends, like the idea of more taxes, he says. ``We talk quite a bit about it.''

On the night of the last presidential debate, a knot of men stood around a bank of color televisions. Even the Sears TV salesman, a disaffected Democrat, stopped to watch and offer his opinion. When he derided Dukakis for being too liberal, a young, leather-jacketed man walked off in a huff.

Ron Griffith, a systems consultant for USX, says he doesn't like Democratic big-spending ways, but he missed the voter registration deadline and will not be able to cast his vote. ``I feel cheated,'' he says, especially because he thinks the race could be close.

But estimates of local voter registration, which ended last Tuesday would suggest the public is apathetic.

Four years ago, Pittsburgh and the rest of Allegheny County signed up 97,000 new voters between the Pennsylvania primary in the spring and the general election in November.

This year, only an estimated 50,000 new voters were added - the lowest increase for a presidential election in at least 40 years.

James Scanlon, the county's director of elections, is worried. ``We are going to have to do something to get the people more interested,'' he says.

Nationally, several other voting analysts agree. ``Our turnout this fall will be the lowest since '48,'' says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. That race drew only 53 percent of voting-age residents across the US.

Mr. Gans cites several reasons for poor turnouts, including what he describes as public dissatisfaction with the candidates and a vacuousness of the campaigns.

In only two presidential elections in this century - 1920 and 1924 - has turnout fallen below 50 percent.

Those figures underestimate real turnout, however, because the Census Bureau does not subtract from its pool of potential voters those people who are ineligible to vote, such as illegal aliens, says poll expert Everett Carll Ladd. He says the real turnout in 1984 was probably 57 percent or 58 percent, instead of the official 53.1 percent, and he predicts it could be a tad higher this year.

It's not so much that voters are apathetic, says Dr. Ladd, but that they are much more critical of the election process these days - something he refers to as ``pop cynicism.''

Back at the South Hills Village mall, Ken Moeslein, a window salesman, criticized both candidates.

``It's a lot of sizzle and I am still waiting for the steak,'' he said as he stayed past closing time to watch the TV debate at his display of windows in the mall.

Downstairs, Catherine Garrubba also stayed beyond closing time, persuading a security guard to leave a mall television set on a little longer so she could watch more of the debate.

Some of her friends will vote for Bush just because they're Republicans, she said. ``But I think it's important to look at the issues.''

Getting out the vote Some experts expect 1988 voter turnout to be the lowest in recent elections Election Turnout 1948* 53.0% 1952 63.3 1956 60.6 1960 62.8 1964 61.9 1968 60.9 1972 55.2 1976 53.5 1980 52.6 1984 53.1 * 1948-56 figures based on different population estimates Source: US Census Bureau estimates

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