The Country-Club Image

President Bush's greatest political weakness may be his trouble establishing rapport with average Americans, hit hard by the recession

ON the edge of Winterset, Iowa, there's a diner called Aldo's where the local farmers gather every morning to talk about what's new in their world, tell a tall tale or two, and give strangers who wander in, especially reporters, a hassle before they settle down and share their thoughts. I found Aldo's one cold morning in January of 1988.

It wasn't a happy time on Iowa's farms. It hadn't been for six or seven years because a sharp drop in the value of Iowa's rich farm land had left farmers with big operating expenses but not enough income or equity to cover them. That, in turn, meant another round of farm foreclosures, suicides, and sinking land values.

These farmers were looking for a friend in the White House, someone who had a feel for their problems, who could empathize with them, single them out for help when "the good times" were rolling elsewhere in the nation.

The farmers at Aldo's had already crossed off one man - then Vice President George Bush. In the view of many rural Iowans, Mr. Bush was the choice of the "country-club crowd" in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, flourishing cities untouched by the problems down on the farms.

Bush, running as a moderate, pro-choice alternative to Ronald Reagan, had won Iowa's GOP caucuses in 1980 in a big upset. Eight years later, however, the farmers at Aldo's liked Bob Dole, a fellow from neighboring Kansas who was "raised in bad times." They also liked a pair of Democrats from farm country - Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Paul Simon of Illinois. The farmers went with Representative Gephardt in the end, giving him a narrow win over Senator Simon.

Iowa, 1988, should have been the early wake-up call for Bush and the men around him - especially after he ran an embarrassing third in the state's caucuses, and after Iowans shrugged off a Republican past and voted for Michael Dukakis, an urban Democrat from the Northeast, in the fall. But no one heard the call.

The bad times that plagued Iowa in the '80s and caused its voters to turn to "one of their own" have spread across the country, into New England and up and down the West Coast. They have become the key to victory in 1992. Voters are searching for "someone who understands our problems" because, after four years in the White House, Bush still hasn't found a way to let people know that he, too, understands. Quite the opposite. Bush has been a study in how not to reach out to such voters.

THE president's holiday at his Kennebunkport home last August stands out as a prime example of what not to do if you are president when your country's economy is in a serious slump, people are losing their jobs, and those who still have theirs are scared.

Each day Bush could be seen on the evening news lounging in a golf cart, taking reporter's queries about the worsening economy. Or fishing from his cigarette boat, a broad smile on his face. Or pitching horseshoes on the manicured lawn of his estate. It left an impression; focus groups keep playing that image of Bush back to reporters and pollsters.

Why, in a time of economic crisis, would White House press boss Marlin Fitzwater allow a TV crew anywhere near Bush when he's in a golf cart or casting for fish? The answer, we hear, is that Bush was so contemptuous of Ronald Reagan's daily TV spots for the networks he won't let his spokesman program the White House press corps in any way.

Bush's sense of what's proper in his daily dealing with the networks is worthy as a standard, but it hasn't helped him establish rapport with that vast segment of the electorate who still see a "country-club Republican" unsympathetic to their problems.

It's a perception shared even by many of his supporters, who see in Bush the typical "Eastern establishment" Republican who views his role on the domestic scene as that of administrator, not leader; a man of consensus, not of action.

Bush's failure to reach out to the frightened middle class in an election year gave Bill Clinton the opening he needed. Governor Clinton's camp isn't as fastidious as Bush's. At their New York convention, Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore, aimed for a restless middle class when they took a cue from TV talk shows by sharing some intimate details of their lives - a young Clinton standing up to a stepfather with a serious drinking problem, Gore kneeling over a son's seemingly lifeless body after th e boy had been hit by a car. It was TV with the emotional tug middle-class viewers expect these days. Bush wouldn't be comfortable with that sort of thing.

Clinton's rebuke of the Rev. Jesse Jackson for inviting Sister Souljah into his Rainbow Coalition gave him a strong preconvention jump in the polls. His success in connecting with the broad-based middle class in his acceptance speech sent him out of the Democratic convention with a big lead.

Can Bush, a proper product of Eastern prep schools, find a way to turn it around, to convince a broad spectrum of middle-class voters that he, too, knows what trouble is like? Can he convince them he knows how to help them and will act if they'll pull together, reelect him, and give him a Republican Congress to help him out? It's the ultimate challenge for any campaign manager, Jim Baker included.

The wishful thinking in GOP circles goes like this: Mr. Baker returns, brings media whiz Roger Ailes with him, and, in quick succession, this winning pair exploits the weaknesses of Clinton and Gore, makes the Democratic-controlled Congress the real issue, renews the Republican "lock" on the Electoral College, and gives Bush four more years.

That scenario has one basic flaw. It's one of those "top down" solutions GOP consultants like so well, in a year when "top down" doesn't have the right feel.

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