Economy Has Voters `Looking for a Change'

Though Democratic by tradition, a bellwether county voted Republican in Michigan's last three presidential elections

WAITING for Democrat Bill Clinton to speak, Jeffrey Archer considers his first-ever vote for president. "As much as I like [President] Bush, I am looking for a change," says the high-school senior.

Several seats away, college senior Jeff Grence echoes the sentiment: "I was always for Reagan-Bush. I am looking for maybe something new."

"Maybe something new" sums up voters' indecision here in Macomb County, Mich. When they go to the polls in tomorrow's Michigan primary, national political observers will be watching.

What Macomb voters do will offer tantalizing clues to what happens in November.

Pundits call Macomb a bellwether county. It sits on top of Detroit like the right half of an anvil waiting to fall into Lake St. Clair. It is 97 percent white. The average house here costs $76,800 - 60 percent more than in Detroit, but less than any surrounding suburban county.

Although Democratic by tradition, Macomb has voted Republican in each of the last three presidential elections.

What will happen this time? The early clues suggest that the so-called Reagan Democrats - voters who defected to the GOP - are up for grabs. Republicans and Democrats alike are finding it tough to woo them.

One evening last week, Macomb Republicans gathered at a restaurant for a private fund- raiser. Outside, 112 of the 120 cars were American-made. Inside, supporters of Bush and right-wing challenger Patrick Buchanan were evenly split.

"It's going to be very, very competitive between Bush and Buchanan," says Doug Carl, a conservative state senator and Bush supporter. He predicts the president will win 2 to 1 in the primary statewide but do no better than 60 percent in Macomb County.

"We may even take the county," says Harry Veryser, Michigan chairman of the Buchanan campaign. A Detroit News poll last week was more encouraging for Bush. It showed the president leading 71 percent to Buchanan's 21 percent. But the same poll echoed deep discontent.

The poor economy lies at the root of the discontent. Half of the Michigan Republicans disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy and only half said he had a clear vision of where he wanted the country to go.

"They are very upset that he [Bush] broke his word to them" on taxes, says Mr. Veryser. The county is becoming more conservative, he adds, not just because of the Reagan Democrats, but also because their children have grown up and become conservatives in their own right. Should Bush win the nomination, he predicts a rancorous party fight after the election is over.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has the momentum to win Michigan. His nearest challenger, Paul Tsongas, is outgunned. And he is having difficulty selling his conservative economic ideas in a state where organized labor plays such an important role in the Democratic Party.

"I really don't see the potential for him to beat Clinton," says Richard Elling, a political science professor at Wayne State University.

A new survey by the Mason-Dixon polling firm showed Clinton with 48 percent of the Democratic vote in Michigan to 22 percent for Tsongas and 11 percent for Brown. The poll said 19 percent of voters were undecided. Clinton held a similar lead in Illinois, the polling firm said.

But Michigan has pulled some surprises before. It voted for southerner George Wallace in the 1972 Democratic primary. And he got strong support from Macomb County.

Many union leaders are unhappy with the economic policies of Clinton as well as his Democratic rivals. "We in the labor movement aren't enthralled with any of the three remaining Democratic candidates," wrote Frank Garrison, head of the state AFL-CIO, in a letter to the Detroit Free Press on Friday. He has called Clinton unelectable in the general election and implied that labor might prefer a brokered convention in which a new Democratic candidate could be found.

In his speech at the Macomb Community College, Clinton gave his audience a kind of economics lesson. He called for government to couple opportunity with responsibility - taking away welfare entitlements, for example, but providing programs for empowerment. He called for more foreign trade in a state hard-hit by Japanese automobile imports. He pleaded for an end to racial division, drawing applause from an overwhelmingly white audience.

"What would it take for this county to become Democratic again?" he asked. "I am trying to give you a new Democratic Party based on old values that will make you come back."

Clinton will win 52 percent of the Democratic vote here, predicts Leo Lalonde, Macomb County Demo- cratic chairman. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas should get 38 percent; former Gov. Jerry Brown, 7 percent. "Clinton, more than anyone else, is espousing the middle class. And that's what Macomb County is, middle class," says Lalonde.

"There's not a lot of brie being eaten in Macomb County," agrees Professor Elling.

"If Clinton can do well in Macomb county and he can run well in the city [of Detroit], he may be able to do something that no Democrat has been able to put together since Jimmy Carter" - a coalition of blacks and traditional Democrats.

"I think the momentum that Reagan built up may slow down," concedes Mr. Carl, the Republican state senator. "But I don't believe that the Democrats will 'come home. I think the Democrats have lost some of those Reagan-Democrats" permanently.

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