Floridians to pick presidential candidates in climate of conservatism

His floor is littered with scraps of leather. Shoes of all colors and styles are piled along the countertops and shelves of his shop in this central Florida city. Shoe repairman Danny Gainin -- short, stocky; wearing a long, blue work apron -- pauses in scraping off a worn sole and looks up at the Monitor reporter:

"The biggest thing on people's minds is the inflation. President Carter is not giving me any answers."

The resumes his work, cutting a new half-sole. "I think we need someone with a better understanding of national and international affairs. There's one [ candidate] I really like, and I've looked him over closely -- Bush.

"I'm a Democrat," he continues. "But I'm not looking at my party. I'm looking for some solid answers."

Mr. Gainin's customers here complain that he is charging too much these days: about $10 for a pair of half soles. But, he counters, the price he pays for the soles, the shoe cement, thread, needles, and other equipment has about tripled in the past few years.

"When is it going to stop?" he asks. "When is he [President Carter] going to help me? His track record for four years has been horrible."

"I'm like John Q. Public," he said as he trimmed excess leather from a new half sole he is preparing. "I'm desperate. I'm grasping for something. And what's frustrating is it's an invisible government. I can't fight back."

Fifteen miles to the north, up Highway 17, in the small town of Pierson, George Ross, an elderly black Baptist minister, sits in the living room of his modest cement- block home. The unpaved road in front of his house gets sloppy and slippery when it rains. He's been trying for 10 years to get it paved.

Gas prices bother him. Grocery prices are "out of sight," he says. "And there's so many people out of a job."

Nevertheless, he says: I think Carter has done a good job for the conditions we live in. He has "opened up a lot of jobs."

Mrs. Ross arrives home and enters with a bag of groceries. She, too, is supporting the President. "I used to like Kennedy before he began fighting the President," she says. "Mr. Carter's slow, but he's getting there. He relies on the Lord."

Democrats for Bush. Anti-Kennedy blacks. Sharply contrasting reactions to inflation.

So it went with numerous Monitor interviews in Volusia County in Central Florida. The county (which includes Daytona Beach) in many ways reflects the rest of the state -- and to some degree the rest of the South -- as four key presidential primaries approach: South Carolina, March 8 (for Republican candidates only); Alabama, Georgia and Florida (both parties) March 11. In all but Florida, members of one party can vote for a candidate of the opposite party.

Instead of Florida Democrats all lining up solidly behind either Mr. Carter or Sen. Edward Kennedy, some are looking at Republicans George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

And Senator Kennedy is not getting the strong support from groups he had counted on -- blacks, for example.

On the other hand, some Florida Republicans are looking kindly on Mr. Carter.

It's like a soccer game in which some players change jerseys with their opponents and run the other way. This is confusing to the spectators (pollsters and pundits). Whether these maverick players will settle back to their traditional sides before the final whistle (the November general election) is unclear.

To better understand what is happening and why, one needs to dig beneath opinion polls and spend time in living rooms, shops, offices, and on farms -- to listen and ask questions. And one needs to understand something of the geography, the history, and the character of this region.

What becomes clearer from some three dozen recent interviews in Volusia County -- an area reflecting the tourist-retirement-agricultural-business mosaic of Florida -- is that inflation and the current US international troubles are the two top issues here. Most voters interviewed had given a good deal of thought to these problems.

The word Afghanistan has suddenly become almost as familiar to Floridians as the word Cuba. And among many there is a genuine concern that the US is closer to going to war than it has been in several decades. Reactions to this vary from wanting to keep President Carter at the helm until things calm down to an almost desperate search for someone who will stand up more firmly to the Soviets.

But impressions of candidates seem to be shaping voters' view as much as the issues. Voter feelings of trust or mistrust, of honesty or slickness on the part of a presidential candidate, weight heavily in their minds.

At the same time, local issues such as road maintenance, taxes, and growth limits are often just as important to voters as national and international ones.

The tiny Volusia County town of Ponce de Leon Springs claims to be the site of the legendary "fountain of youth" vainly sought by the Spanish explorer. It also boasts the "fern capital of the world" -- Pierson, a town of about 1,100. Almost every American florist and many overseas use central Florida ferns -- and the industry here began and still flourishes in Pierson.

Nothing very exciting politically has happened in Pierson for a very long time. but on March 11, Lillian Carter comes to town for a reception at the home of ferngrower Bonnie Jones, who describes herself as a political "greenhorn" backing Mr. Carter.

Fern farmer Peter Russell Pierson, whose relatives founded the town, says he is "disillusioned about all politics." Sitting at the wooden kitchen table in the two-story home a Pierson relative built in 1910, he says the recent allegations that members of Congress accepted illegal payments from FBI agents posing as Arabs deeply bothers him.

Some tourists stop briefly in Volusia County to see manatees at a state park. Thousands go to Daytona Beach. But presidential candidates rarely come here. Big, fast-growing Orlando, to the south, lures a candidate now and then. Unlike many New Hampshirites, however, most Floridians never see a presidential candidate except on TV. But this central Florida is attracting more and more permanent residents.

Volusia features a number of rapidly expanding retirement towns. One, Deltona, has more than 400 miles of road and looks like the kind of sprawling middle and upper middle-class subdivision seen in many states. Young families, too, are pouring into Deltona, taking service jobs and filling the schools with their children.

Deltona retirees like Iva and J. Scott Maclennan cite the growing juvenile vandalism reported in the area, though they say it is less serious than what they used to see in New Jersey. And they see a need, eventually, for Deltona to incorporate, though they realize this will probably mean more taxes.

Florida leads the nation in population growth from migration. From 1970 to 1979 the state grew some 36 percent (to more than 9.2 million), almost entirely due to migration. This was twice California's growth due to migration.

Some 17.5 percent of Florida's residents are 65 or older, compared with 11 percent for the US as a whole. In 1977, 24 percent of those living in Volusia County were 65 or older.

Many Florida cities and counties have begun to face the issue of curbing growth. It is a hot topic: No one wants to be kept out, and developers thrive on population growth. But residents are beginning to complain of traffic jams and polluted rivers. Lakefront homes end up facing lakefront homes instead of the woods that once were.

Many of the newcomers are financially well off. On the average, Floridians over 65 depend on social security for only one-third of their income. The rest comes mostly from earnings, pensions, and investments.

But among Florida's poor, inflation may mean doing without certain kinds of food or needed clothing.

"I'm poor and I need a house -- a better house than this one," says Dolly Moore of Pierson. She pays $18 a week for what most would call a shack. The oil heater smokes and the hot water hasn't worked for months; the landlord keeps promising repairs.

In Daytona Beach, employed cement finisher Lloyd White has friends trained as carpenters and plumbers who can't find jobs in their trades. "They got a corner they stand on," hoping to be hired for day labor, he says. For the affluent Floridians, inflation strikes differently. A boat dealer complains that sales are down. A DeLand workingman is trying to sell his Winnebago. House and land sales have slowed.

Deltona retiree James Austin, complaining of paying up to $30 for a gas fill-up, is limiting his trips back North to one a year.

The conventional wisdom is that President Carter is in trouble because of inflation, says T. Wayne Bailey, chairman of the political science department at Stetson University in DeLand, the Volusia County seat.

The Kennedy people feel they have some good issues -- particularly the economy -- but can't catch on, he says. Why? For one thing, Iran and Afghanistan "overlay" inflation as a concern. And Florida is a state where "candidates can wrap themselves in the flag," says Dr. Bailey.

People are finally beginning to see the link beteen inflation and oil prices and realize no President can control oil prices, says DeLand attorney William Sherman, a Carter supporter.

International problems are another thing.

No one interviewed called for a cut in defense spending. One who called for more went out of his way to say he is not a "warmonger." But most people here feel uneasy about Afghanistan. Iran seems to be working mostly for the President, on the other hand. He is widely credited with handling it calmly, though some blame him for not avoiding the crisis in the first place.

Some of the concerns of voters have to do as much with local issues as international ones.

Len and Peg Berkley retired to Florida from Connecticut. Mr. Berkley, a former Army officer, is now a substitute teacher in the Deltona schools. His wife, a painter, plays golf three or four times a week and hears her partners complain about high interest rates and the prices of food and gas.

Quite aware of the need to save fuel, Mr. Berkley does the grocery shopping by going to a nearby store on his bicycle.

The Berkleys are happy -- and yet uneasy.

The schools don't teach enough "patriotism," says Mr. Berkley. Government provides too many "handouts," says his wife.

"You almost need a dictator" to tell unions what their wages will be, says Mr. Berkley. Later he adds he supports Common Cause. He feels pulled in several directions politically and bombarded by TV news and political ads on complex issues.

Mrs. Berkley wishes she felt "more comfortable" with one of the presidential candidates. As of now, they're leaning toward John Anderson, who "makes sense," or George Bush.

People seem to be listening to candidates -- perhaps closer than the candidates realize. Several people here said they weren't "fooled" by a Reagan campaign ad about his being sent abroad by two President on missions. Folks here said those visits were just "ceremonial."

George Bush has a number of ex-CIA agents who live in the area working on his campaign, something one local Democratic Party official thinks people are a little "nervous" about. But with Iran and Afghanistan, CIA is suddenly back in greater favor among many.

In an interview in his DeLand home, ex-CIA agent Roger William Severt, a former Carter supporter now working for Bush, spoke of a need for a "stronger" President to restore "American prestige and influence abroad."

And yet for all the awareness of major issues, few people are conversant with the details of those issues. "People really haven't gotten down to thinking of specifics," says Mr. Severt, who the night before had played Pawnee Bill in a local theater production of "Annie Get Your Gun."

President Carter is strong in areas like this -- not so much because of issues, but because of hard campaigning in the area by his wife in 1976 and skillful use of the White House since then, says Dr. Bailey. More than 50 persons from Volusia County alone have been to the White House for a social event of some kind since Mr. Carter was elected, he says. "People frame the darn things [the invitations]," he said during an interview in his cramped Stetson University office, overflowing with papers and lined by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

There is a widespread perception in the area of President Carter "tackling the problems," says Clyde Bennett, a DeLand real estate broker. Many who talk pro-Republican are likely to vote Democrat, says attorney Sherman.

Almost everyone interviewed -- Democrats, Republicans, independents -- mentioned "Chappiquiddick" as a reason for not backing Edward Kennedy. Chappiquiddick is, as national polls have shown, far from being a fading issue for the Massachusetts senator.

In the end, shoemaker Gainin may never get the clear answers he is demanding, but there will be a good deal of political scrambling between now and November to try to satisfy him to some degree.

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