In a Place Where Cows Outnumber the People, Voters Hit the Bull's-Eye

UNTIL 1976, there were four counties out of the 3,141 in the United States that had voted for the winner in every presidential election.

That year, a county in Wyoming and one in New Hampshire dropped from the list by going for the loser, Gerald Ford. Palo Alto County, Iowa, gave Walter Mondale a thin edge in 1984. Now there's just one bellwether county left, Crook County, Ore.

So how will the one bellwether county that's left go in 1992?

Most of Crook County looks pretty much the way it did back in 1882 when folks around here got fed up with trying to get the nearest sheriff to come 120 miles to stop the vigilante battles between cattle ranchers and sheep raisers. It's still mostly juniper and sage and table-flat mesas, a territory of wide-open spaces where cows far outnumber people and the congressional district is larger than 35 of the United States.

Local residents formed a new county back then, showing the same kind of independence they did later, in 1911, when they started their own railroad (the Union Pacific had bypassed them).

Today they are still a very independent lot, which is why hardly anybody here will predict with any assurance who voters will pick Nov. 3.

"They're kind of going with Clinton, from what I hear," says Alice Mulder, who manages the Ochoco Motel with her husband Bob. "But don't quote me!" she jests.

"People have a tendency to vote for the person and not by party," says county clerk Della Harrison. "I'm a Democrat but I don't vote strictly Democratic." Mrs. Harrison's latest tally of registered voters shows 3,754 Democrats, 3,096 Republicans, 81 independents, 33 Libertarians, and 1,214 "others."

Tony Ahearn, the young managing editor of the twice-weekly Central Oregonian newspaper, calls this "a very conservative area," a place where "it's tough to get a school levy passed." That could work in George Bush's favor, especially since "character" is a big issue when it comes to Bill Clinton. And yet Mr. Ahearn says "people are seeing [Bush] as someone who's not a visionary at all."

`THERE'S a feeling that he didn't bring us anything in four years and he won't bring us anything in another four years," he says.

"I'm just about ready to vote for that guy who's here and gone," says retiree Don Kendall, referring to Ross Perot. "I don't know anything about him, but I'm pretty near ready to vote for him just to throw a scare into people."

Cattle ranching and farming are the main sources of income here, along with federal land management jobs and the largest tire recapping plant in the country. But financial planner Fred Rodgers says "it's a mistake to look at this as a little 'ol country town."

"These people may wear bib overalls, but they're pretty savvy," says Mr. Rodgers, who favors jeans with his sports jacket and silk tie. He is running as a Republican for county administrator (called the "judge" here).

But he also notes, as do others, that the county is changing as more retirees and other newcomers settle in.

The county seat of Prineville (population 5,315) recently got its first art gallery and cafe. Whereas cultural performances heretofore were limited mostly to fairground visits by country singers Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire, Shirley Lennox's Rimrock Gallery now features tables to play chess, a classical guitarist on Friday nights, and espresso.

"I'm finding many kindred spirits," says Ms. Lennox, a painter who moved here from Santa Monica, Calif., 18 months ago.

"A lot of rural people fear they'll be outnumbered by the urbanites," says Roger Harris, manager of the area's cable television company.

Does this mean the electorate in the country's last bellwether county is changing?

The cable company sent out a "presidential preference survey" with its September billing. Clinton scored 715, Bush 480. (Perot got just 33, but that was after he had dropped out.)

But when the Central Oregonian called 100 registered voters last Wednesday night, the results were quite different: Bush 36, Clinton 28, Perot 14, and 22 undecided.

Whether or not Crook County maintains its bellwether status - and some are said to vote for the perceived winner just to keep their quadrennial moment of fame - there is the realization that it has to end sometime. Says Mr. Harris: "A lot of it is just plain dumb luck."

If there were in fact some special formula, the county clerk says, "the candidates could all just come here."

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