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US is content, but ready for change

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2000



WARREN, VT.

With the buzz of mowers, fresh-cut grass, and a tang of barbecue smoke filling the Memorial Day weekend air, a buoyant America heads into the summer riding on the economic wave of good fortune, which has powered the country for the past nine years.

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But even as the nation's comfort with the fullness of its wallet and the increasing safety of its communities fuel a characteristic American optimism, a sense of disquiet is also stealing across the landscape. And that is already having a political impact on the presidential race.

Usually, incumbents or their heirs in good times are shoo-ins. But this year, the country might go against the grain. Vice President Al Gore is struggling in the polls against Texas Gov. George W. Bush. While it's still early, the sources of unease range from uncertainty about the economy to questions about the moral fiber of the current administration.

You can hear the unease as a sunburned Jack Garvin, fresh from a Memorial Day weekend marathon in Burlington, Vt., talks about the shortage of workers brought on by the booming financial sector.

Or when James Carpenter, who owns a trucking business in Haslet, Texas, worries about sticker shock at the gas pump and the impact on his business.

And as Joe Furnia, a retail fuel manager in Canton, N.Y., bemoans the moral legacy of the Clinton administration.

All three are optimistic about the economy, despite Wall Street's yo-yo-like volatility and the recent round of interest-rate hikes. But only Mr. Furnia knows who he's voting for, and it's not Mr. Gore.

The three are reflective of a complex trend. A recent Gallup Poll found that a whopping 66 percent of Americans rate the economy as "good" or "excellent." But it also found a marked increase in pessimism. The poll, conducted May 18 to 21, found that 37 percent of Americans now say economic conditions are getting worse, compared with only 23 percent in January.

At the same time, no one can exactly put their finger the "most important problem" facing the country. It ranges from education, to healthcare, to morals, depending on which American you talk to.

"Maybe for that reason, people are looking more at the character and personality of the candidates," says Frank Newport, executive director of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J. "There's no demand that they solve a problem like there was in '92 when we had a bad economy."

Jack Garvin voted for Bill Clinton in the last two elections.

With a bevy of weekend tourists crowded into the quaint, but high-toned Warren General Store that he's managed for the past 20 years, he shares his ambiguous feelings about the economy and the two top presidential contenders.

Over a scarred maple table that overlooks the rushing Kids Brook - named because, by town decree, only kids age 15 and under can fish in it - Mr. Garvin now says he has to listen to traffic twice a day during rush hour as thousands of commuters leave the bucolic Mad River Valley for jobs in the cities.