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Keystone-State Voters Prepare for Primary

Negativism seems to be the theme of the campaign as voters voice disaffection with presidential choices

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 1992



EAST LIVERPOOL, OHIO

OHIO may seem like a odd place to campaign for tomorrow's Pennsylvania primary. But Democratic presidential hopeful Jerry Brown is here nonetheless; he is voicing his support for opponents of an incinerator plant that has many downwind Pennsylvania communities concerned about toxins it may emit.

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The school auditorium is three-quarters full with people and placards that say "No." No to the controversial incineration plant. No to a proposed local prison. This negativism is a dominant theme on the campaign trail as Pennsylvanians prepare to vote.

"It's a year that has gone to the negative," says Robert Friedrich, a professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"The much-touted apathy [of voters] is very much misunderstood," says Michael Young, a professor of politics and public affairs at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. "It's anomie. It's alienation borne of a sense of powerlessness."

If any candidate could build upon voter frustration, it should be Mr. Brown. He has portrayed himself from the beginning as an "outsider" who rejects the status quo.

Brown drew loud applause when he railed against the incinerator and when he criticized President Bush and the Congress. But the crowd seemed to lose interest when he talked about his own record. Knots of voters talked among themselves as Brown spoke. Afterward, dedicated environmentalists said they would give him their vote but not their hearts and souls.

"I feel he's the most honest," says Vincey Cox of nearby Industry, Pa. Voters look for a change

"I am trying to make up for my voting record of the past three elections," adds Gary Blake, a telephone lineman carrying a photocopied Brown poster.

Mr. Blake voted for George Bush in 1988 and Ronald Reagan before him. Disappointed with Bush's performance on the environment, he drove two hours to hear Brown speak.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton already has locked up more than half of the Democratic convention delegates he needs to win the party's nomination.

The consensus among political observers is that Governor Clinton will win the Pennsylvania Democratic primary handily.

But the same polls also suggest continuing voter dissatisfaction: Two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters wish they had another candidate to vote for, according to a recent poll by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WTAE-TV.

Even Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey (D) now says publicly that Clinton is unelectable.

"This is a 'change' election," says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa. His polls also suggest widespread voter disaffection. Like many political observers here, he expects a significant decline in voter turnout.

"It's not a realignment," he says. "If anything it's a de-alignment."

For example: While Blake is moving away from the GOP, Dennis M. Casey is opting out of the Democratic Party. Looking for a candidate

"I keep looking for someone to vote for," says Mr. Casey, a national political consultant based in Pittsburgh. Last October, he finally changed his registration from Democratic to Independent. Under Pennsylvania rules, that means he can no longer vote in a primary.

The disaffection doesn't stop at the top.

"Not only have people seen the failure of federal government; they have seen the failure of state government," says David Buffington, editor of a biweekly political newsletter called Pennsylvania Report. Like other states, Pennsylvania voters have struggled under huge state-budget deficits. "They view it as a failure of government in general."

The Pennsylvania candidate who did capture voters' imagination was Sen. Harris Wofford, a little-known Democrat who last November used populist themes and an image as an outsider to upset a much better-known Republican, former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

So far, few if any candidates in this primary have been able to capture that image. One possible exception is Lynn Yeakel, a political novice running for the US Senate.

Two weeks ago, political experts were writing her off in the Democratic primary. Now, polls suggest she has pulled even with the front-runner, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mark Singel.

Ms. Yeakel's surge suggests she has captured a strong women's vote, Mr. Buffington says, but he's skeptical that candidates in this state will be able to capitalize on voter frustrations. "I don't see a candidate who can capture the lightening and put it in a bottle," he says.

"It will be a spinoff of the old Vietnam saying: What if they gave a campaign and nobody came?" Casey adds. "There's an ennui out there and I don't see it changing."