PRESIDENTIAL candidate Bill Clinton is chipping away at President Bush's support in the business community. That may seem unusual for a Democrat, but this is a strange election year.
Within the last 10 days:
* Two top executives of the largest computer software companies in Washington and Oregon have formed a Clinton/Gore support group.
* More than 200 New England business leaders publicly endorsed the Democratic ticket. It is part of a national group of 400 business leaders who publicly backed Mr. Clinton last month.
Clinton's support seems especially strong among high-technology executives. When H&M Consulting polled 500 high-tech executives earlier this month, it found that 53 percent supported the Democratic nominee compared with 41 percent for President Bush and 6 percent for independent candidate Ross Perot. High-profile chief executives, including John Sculley of Apple Computer and John Young of Hewlett-Packard Company, have publicly endorsed Clinton.
This support doesn't represent a majority, however. When Cahners Economics surveyed a panel of business people in September, the Newton, Mass., publication asked whose economic plan would most benefit their companies. A whopping 46 percent said it made no difference. This month, the undecided vote had dropped to 18 percent, while Bush grabbed 49 percent (up 9 points), Clinton stood at 18 percent (up 4 points), and Perot came out of nowhere to grab 15 percent of the vote.
"With the possible exception of [Lyndon] Johnson, a Democratic candidate has not attracted as much business support since the Depression," says Sheldon Kamieniecki, a political science professor at the University of Southern California.
"These people are not at all happy with George Bush's handling of the economy," he says. At one meeting with the president in conservative Orange County, Calif., businessmen privately pleaded for the White House to take a more active role in recharging the economy, he says. Instead, Bush denied there was a problem.
Unlike previous Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton's economic plan has gained credibility. The H&M poll found that 56 percent of the high-tech executives thought the Democrat's proposals offered the best plan for the country. The Clinton campaign claims its plan has the support of more than 550 economists, including nine Nobel Prize winners. Some business forecasters doubt that a Clinton White House would act that much differently than the Bush one.
"There are important differences between the two candidates. But looking at the macro level, Clinton is constrained by the budget deficit, just as Bush is," says David Hensley, director of the UCLA Business Forecasting Project. In terms of economic impact, "I don't think you can discern one from the other."
EVEN the conservative National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) had something nice to say about the Democratic nominee, because he favors the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Clinton is beginning to appreciate the critical role for manufacturing and exports in achieving economic growth," says Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the association, which represents 12,500 companies. "I think he's more palatable to our members than [1988 Democratic nominee Michael] Dukakis was."
But the NAM remains wary of a Clinton administration.
"An aggregate tax increase of $150 billion and the huge cost of additional government mandates on employers would dwarf whatever positive effect the plan's good but modest business incentives might have," said Jerry Jasinowski, NAM's president.
The United States Chamber of Commerce found similar discomfort when it projected the economic impact of a Clinton presidency. By 1996, the nation's gross domestic product would be $173 billion less under Clinton than if present policies were pursued, it says. Bush, by contrast, would increase GDP $226 billion over the next five years, the association estimates.
The biggest concern: A Democratic administration will increase government regulation and saddle their companies with new government mandates.
"Small business people are very anti-government involvement and government regulation," says Geoffrey Kessler, president of the Kessler Exchange, a small-business research group based in Northridge, Calif. "The paperwork the small business person is filling out is a major ... source of frustration."
When the Kessler Exchange polled 595 small-business owners earlier this month, it found that half of them thought the economic environment for small businesses would get worse under Clinton. Just under 39 percent of them will support Bush. But Bush's support seems lukewarm in the survey. More than 22 percent planned to vote for Perot. And many respondents thought the small-business climate would improve with the Texas billionaire at the helm.