Support for Bush Is Weak in Houston

Texas is faring better than many states, but residents are unhappy with the president

EVERY Wednesday at the tony River Oaks Country Club, business leaders shmooze over scrambled eggs and sliced melon. Founded in 1950, the Breakfast Association represents one of Houston's longest-established "power meals." One member, though rarely present, is President Bush.

"These men should be more favorable to George Bush than anybody," a businessman commented one recent morning. "But you won't hear very much enthusiasm from them."

Nor from Shelby Brady, an electrician for Compaq Computer Corporation before he was laid off last November. This weekend found him near the Astrodome, baling hay as a ranch hand for half his former pay. "Bush is the one I'm going to vote for," Mr. Brady says, "but I wish [the Republican nominee] was someone else."

Nor from Plezine Smith, who lives in a $125-a-month row house in the ramshackle Fourth Ward and works as a maid in wealthy River Oaks. She says Bush hasn't done enough to provide child care so single parents can get jobs. "I don't think that's right," Ms. Smith says, adding that she will vote Democratic.

Nor from Kathryn Whitmire, the former Houston mayor. Bush has done some good things for the city, like bring the 1990 economic summit and the Republican National Convention this week.

But she worries about federal inattention to education and early childhood development. "While Bush is a supporter of Houston," she says, "it is a fact that those are not his priorities."

Whitmire and other Houston boosters do bubble about the free publicity and "the money," as Councilwoman Gracie Saenz succinctly refers to the economic windfall from the convention. But that excitement rarely carries over to the Bush candidacy.

An exception is Beverly Kaufman, president of the 10,000-member Texas Federation of Republican Women. "You bet [Bush has helped Houston]. In a lot of ways. Gosh, where shall I begin?"

Ms. Kaufman cites trade, energy, and crime. "Plus he's helped us because he's honored us, being a great president."

Political scientist Robert Stein polled 825 Texas voters in July and the same group again last week. Those giving the president a negative job rating increased from 52 to 61 percent. "I'm betting that his approval rating in Houston is maybe slightly worse," Dr. Stein says.

It's no comfort to Texans, he explains, that the economy here is doing better than in most other parts of the country. Some 45 percent in Stein's poll said they did the same financially in the past 12 months as the year before. "Staying the same is no improvement," Stein says. And 34 percent say they did worse.

The condition of the voter's pocketbook, he says, is "probably the best single predictor of voter choice."

Bush need not listen for hurrahs from the oil industry.

"Do we think George Bush has been good for Houston?" muses Les Rogers of Exxon U.S.A., one of five oil companies here that donated $250,000 each to the cost of the convention. "I'm totally devoid of comment," he concludes.

But George Mitchell, a member of the Wednesday breakfast club, is blunt: "I think [Bush has] done a terrible job on energy, which upsets me," Mr. Mitchell's billion-dollar net worth was halved by the collapse of energy prices during the 1980s. His company, Mitchell Energy and Development, still sometimes closes gas wells when the market price falls below replacement cost.

Oilmen fault Bush for not fighting hard enough to include drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the energy bill and for putting much of United States waters off limits to drilling, among other things. "Our energy policy is to go to war. That's it," Mitchell adds.

Some of Bush's most solid backers here may be from outer space. The budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which employs 17,000 in the Houston area, rose from $11 billion in 1989 to a requested $15 billion for next year.

"He's always been a strong supporter of the space station," says Jack Riley, a spokesman at the Johnson Space Center. Bush has also called for a lunar base and sending a man to Mars.

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