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The Defining Issues

Voters pretty much size up a candidate by one or two important issues. Today, the Monitor takes a look at the `defining' issues for each of the five candidates.

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1992


ONE morning not long ago America awoke, rubbed its eyes, looked into the mirror, and got a shock. What it saw with some disbelief was a superpower that was developing serious problems akin to those of the third world.

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The nation was losing millions of its best-paying jobs and trading them for low-wage occupations. It was plunging into the deepest debt of any country on Earth. Its middle class was shrinking, its streets were crumbling and crime-ridden, its schools were failing, and more and more of its children were living in poverty.

Next door was Mexico, where newly built factories, financed by American money, were producing high-quality products ranging from TV sets to Mercury Tracer automobiles. Abroad, archrival Japan was adding high-skill, high-wage jobs so fast that it had serious labor shortages.

In the heady 1980s, Ronald Reagan had promised "morning in America." But in 1992, presidential candidates in both parties crisscrossed the country and solemnly warned that in America's cities and towns, in its homes and factories, it was closer to midnight.

Even President Bush, who once wrapped himself in Mr. Reagan's mantle of good times, conceded as the '92 campaign began that the nation's economy was in a "free fall."

Warnings continue to echo from all sides. "The American dream is slipping away," says David Wilhelm, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

"Our beloved country has come to a critical crossroads," proclaims Republican presidential challenger Patrick Buchanan.

For a while, the afterglow of the Persian Gulf war put off America's day of reckoning. But as the memory of that swift victory has faded, the nation's attention has focused on mounting economic problems at home.

Every time a big General Motors factory closes, or a parts manufacturer moves to Taiwan or Singapore, or another bank fails, the national anxiety level ratchets up another notch.

Even Republicans who strongly defend the White House now raise hurricane warnings.

The Wirthlin Group, which did polling for Ronald Reagan through the 1980s, reports that "national pessimism" is "unabated." In a survey of 1,008 adults last month, Wirthlin found that "76 percent [of Americans] say the nation is seriously off on the wrong track." A scant 18 percent think things are going well.

A stunning 81 percent of Americans say the economy is in bad shape, with 41 percent calling it a recession, and another 40 percent judging it even worse, "an economic depression that will last a long time," according to the newest Times Mirror national survey released April 3.

All this leaves George Bush in the most vulnerable position of any incumbent president since Jimmy Carter in 1980. Donald Kellermann, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, observes that Bush's current approval rating, which has skidded to 36 percent, exactly equals Mr. Carter's at this time in his losing 1980 race.

The Times Mirror says, "The core of the public's problem with the president is the unchanged belief that he is not doing enough to improve economic conditions." Some 76 percent feel that way, while just 21 percent think Bush is doing all he can.

The question that emerges out of all this public dismay, anger, and disillusionment is: What should be done?