Voter ambivalence on Chestnut St.

How they decide

Election day may be just around the bend, but retired truck driver Mike Petrohoy is still stalled at the crossroads, unsure whether to go with George W. Bush or Al Gore.

"The guy we like, we don't trust," says Mr. Petrohoy, standing on the porch of his Chestnut Street row house. "The guy we trust, we don't like!"

It's the kind of frustration shared by many of Petrohoy's neighbors in the Lehigh Valley swing town of Emmaus, Pa. Just days before Nov. 7, a full 30 percent of voters contacted in an informal, door-to-door Monitor survey said they still couldn't make up their minds.

Such deep-seated ambivalence in Pennsylvania and other battleground states promises to make this presidential contest one of the closest in generations. It persists despite a blizzard of television ads and campaign stops by Texas Governor Bush and Vice President Gore, who have visited Pennsylvania seven times since mid-October.

Indeed, only one glimmer of predictability emerged from interviews this weekend with dozens of Emmaus residents: When people here are truly fenced, party loyalty can tip the balance.

"I probably will vote my party," says Evelyn Hamm, a homemaker and retired shoe-factory worker who lives down the block from Petrohoy. A registered Democrat, she was so disillusioned with Gore and Bush she had considered sitting out the election.

Today, she views a vote for Gore as a sheer leap of faith. "I hope and pray that I vote for the right one," says Hamm, who has 45 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Around the corner, Jody Rhoda, a Democrat and Kraft Foods inventory worker, is considering a party-line vote too. But as she stands in her leaf-strewn yard, she has a hard time thinking of something good to say about Gore. "What do I like about him? I don't know - he's a Democrat!" she says.

Interestingly, far more Republicans than Democrats say they are undecided.

But among the 70 percent of voters who are decided or strongly leaning in one direction, the Monitor survey found a willingness, especially among Democrats, to cross party lines and look to alternative candidates. Indeed, the old Pennsylvania Dutch community of Emmaus is a typical Lehigh Valley swing town with a mix of conservative, blue-collar Democrats and suburban newcomers who tend to be moderate Republicans.

In Emmaus' fourth voting precinct, where the Monitor conducted its small sample poll of nearly 50 voters, modest duplex row houses blend into more affluent single-family homes near the popular Emmaus High School, considered one of the best in the region. The eight-block long, crown-shaped precinct has 643 Republicans, 577 Democrats, and 213 Independents, according to county voter registration figures. In 1988, precinct voters chose the elder George Bush for president by a comfortable margin. In 1992 and 1996, they opted for Bill Clinton, but only by a handful of votes.

Among decided or leaning voters, all Republicans interviewed here solidly backed Bush. About 1 in 6 of the Democrats were either leaning toward Bush or decided for Bush, citing a desire for change and stronger leadership. A smaller number of Democrats supported consumer advocate and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

"I'm tired of the Democrats and Gore. Bush - he's a change," says retiree Arnold Cheiry, a registered Democrat, at his home on Green Street.

Jessica Baker, a struggling single mother of two and also a Democrat, says she will vote for Bush because "the morals are there." "With him it's right or wrong - no in between," she says, hugging herself against a blustery fall day. "I think he can put the United States back on track."

Other Democrats, more cynical than most voters about the political process, planned to vote for Mr. Nader to voice their discontent with the electoral system. "The only way to change the system is to vote for someone who hasn't bought into it," says Duane Yaindl, a steel fitter who says his wife will also vote Nader.

Across the street, Democrat Ron Genovese, a retired accountant from Bethlehem Steel, also favors Nader's views on campaign finance reform and the environment. But Mr. Genovese complains that under the US two-party system, third-party candidates often lack the exposure they need to be elected. "The debates didn't include Nader, but they should have," he says.

Asked why they chose who they did, voters spoke of issues and character traits that reflect the somewhat conservative priorities of Emmaus, an insular, 250-year-old community that still holds yearly apple dumpling sales and publishes crime reports such as "vehicle scratched."

Abortion and gun control - with many people opposing both - were the two issues raised most often by voters in Emmaus, which has a population of 11,000 that is predominantly white, middle- and working-class, Germanic, and older than the national average.

Voters supporting Gore cited his stances on Social Security, the environment, reforming health maintenance organizations, and promoting the well-being of lower-income Americans.

"I don't like the privatization of Social Security," says John Baker, a retired shipping and receiving clerk who lives alone in a tidy row house on Chestnut street.

Mr. Baker and other Gore supporters also emphasized the vice president's experience as a major asset. "Gore's been in Washington so he knows what it's all about," an advantage in working with Congress, Baker says.

Bush supporters, on the other hand, embraced most his positions on national defense and the size and role of government. "I don't like the government into everything," says Leslie Montalto, a stay-at-home mother of three, adding that she opposes the federalization of education.

Those backing Bush also praised what they see as his superior leadership abilities and moral judgment. "I think Gore is wishy washy," says Mrs. Montalto, who also links Gore to the scandals of the Clinton administration. "I'm turned off by the whole scandal thing," she says.

Many Emmaus voters, however, aren't giving weight to President Clinton's moral failings or impeachment as they make their decision. On the contrary, said one undecided voter, Karen Kingston: "I think Bush is poor on foreign policy and Gore exaggerates. Despite what he did, I wouldn't mind having Clinton again."

Last in a series. Previous stories ran on Sept. 29, Oct. 6, and Oct. 25.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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