WASHINGTON — PRESIDENTIAL primaries tomorrow in Michigan and Illinois will test the depths of voter outrage over the economy. Unemployment rates are running well over the national average in the industrial Midwest, and voters are "downright angry," says Steven Rosenstone, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
Auto workers, steelmakers, truckers, and thousands of other blue-collar Americans are looking for someone to blame as big companies export well-paying jobs to Mexico and the Far East.
Democrats and Republicans alike are exploiting this unrest. Hours before the balloting, Paul Tsongas's campaign passed out fliers charging that Bill Clinton has "one of the worst records on labor issues of any governor."
President Bush, worried that growing sales of Japanese cars will be blamed on the White House, bashed Patrick Buchanan for owning a German-made Mercedes-Benz.
A surprise benefactor in all this could be former Gov. Jerry Brown of California. He was rapidly picking up labor support in Michigan in the final days with his strong opposition to US free trade with Mexico and his denunciation of corporate executives' million-dollar salaries.
Mary Matalin, a Bush campaign strategist, said of Michigan: "It's a tough state.... It's got a large labor base which is in a grumpy mood."
The mood was also sour on the campaign trail, as candidates went after each other with new vigor. Mr. Tsongas, hoping to blunt Governor Clinton's fast-moving, well-organized campaign, foresook his "St. Paul" image and swung hard.
In a 30-second ad, he accuses Clinton of raising taxes on gasoline and food, while self-righteously claiming to be for working people. Another Tsongas ad running in both states shows people grabbing for uneven pieces of a pie, while an announcer says: "This is the way Bill Clinton sees the economy. He promises everybody a slice of the pie.... But not much pie."
Clinton claimed Tsongas was desperate. "That happens all the time when people lose political debates," he said. "They resort to personal attacks on their opponents."
Meanwhile, a Buchanan ad charges that three of Bush's top political advisers were registered foreign agents before joining the campaign. The three are: Rich Bond, the GOP chairman, who represented the government of Panama; James Lake, communications director, who represented Japanese auto-parts makers; and Charles Black, a campaign strategist, who represented a Japanese official.
"People close to George Bush are making money representing foreign interests," says Jerry Woodruff, a Buchanan aide. "How do we know they are really working on behalf of the American people?"
All these fireworks may create fresh interest among Michigan and Illinois voters, but some party insiders fear that in the long run their candidates are being damaged for the fall campaign.
Tsongas already has called Clinton, the front-running Democrat, unelectable because of his personal problems. In the GOP, Buchanan accuses the president of deceiving Americans about taxes and of using federal money to finance pornographic art.
Dr. Rosenstone says he doesn't want to exaggerate the importance of such party infighting, but in the November election "it does matter" if it goes on too long.
"A lot of little things form an image of the candidates in the minds of citizens," the professor says. Clinton, for example, is beginning to look "pretty dirty," Rosenstone says. Already, Republicans are "licking their chops." Eventually the damage will be hard to undo, he suggests.
On the Republican side, "the Buchanan attacks are serious in other respects," he says. Buchanan's campaign gives legitimacy to certain ways of attacking Bush, such as Bush's broken promise on taxes. So long as Buchanan's attacks go unanswered, they are helping to paint an image of public dislike for the president - "and that can stick," Rosenstone says.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, expects much of the current rancor to be papered over at the national conventions with "gracious speeches" by the losers.
HOWEVER, Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University, is less sanguine. He predicts Bush will recycle the very words of Tsongas, Sen. Bob Kerrey, and other Democrats claiming that Clinton is not electable and perhaps is unfit to serve in the White House.
Like Rosenstone, Dr. Beck says the long-term impact is subtle. The attacks gradually shape public perceptions of the character of Bush, Buchanan, Tsongas, Clinton, and others. "Voters may lose track of exactly what the source was, but they may now get a sense that Bill Clinton is a slick politician or someone who does not quite have the integrity that a president should have. Once that develops, it is hard to dispel," he warns.