Keene Gives a Nod to Clinton

President's polls are up, despite slow economy. New Hampshire voters say why they are willing to wait.

IF anyone might be upset about the direction President Clinton is steering the country, it is David Schmidt.

Mr. Schmidt, a compact man with raven-black mustache and hair, is about to lose his job as a maintenance mechanic. His employer, a medical products company in Fitzwilliam, N.H., is ``consolidating'' its operations - management-speak for closing down a plant that employs 350 people.

So what does Schmidt think about President Clinton and his campaign pledge to focus ``like a laser'' on job-creation?

``I haven't seen it yet,'' he says.

But he adds, ``I'm not blaming Clinton. He stepped into a tough spot. You've got to give him time.... I think he can pull things through. He's got a lot of good ideas.''

Schmidt's views aren't unusual in the small New Hampshire town of Keene (population 22,430). From the broad Main Street, lined with homes built by prosperous mill owners in the 19th century, to the Colony Mill Marketplace, an old factory come back to life as a mall, folks here generally give the president high marks for what he's tried to do in his first year in office, if not for what he's actually accomplished.

The attitudes here help to explain why the president's poll numbers have climbed recently from undistinguished to impressive.

In the Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll, for instance, the president's approval rating has soared from 43 percent in July to 56 percent this month, while his disapproval rating has plummeted to 32 percent.

But Clinton's new-found popularity may be as solid as quicksand.

Few go so far as the customer who enters Marshall's Barber Shop near Keene City Hall and announces that he ``hates'' Clinton because ``I treasure my liberty.'' Such harsh words run counter to the day-to-day civility of life in this small town, even if the message is familiar in a state whose license plates read, ``Live Free or Die.''

Most Keene residents, even those who generally back Clinton, aren't enthusiastically endorsing many of the president's proposals. Nor are they celebrating the president's year of legislative achievements, ranging from passage of his budget this summer to a stunning victory on the North American Free Trade Agreement this fall.

Rather, Keenites give the young president a cautious thumbs-up on the grounds that he's still learning the job. Their very American attitude is that everyone deserves a chance to show what he or she can do.

If Clinton doesn't produce results, voters in New Hampshire, the nation's informal electoral college, know they can always send a thunderous message by supporting an underdog challenger in their primary election - as they did in 1968 and 1992. But having launched Clinton's candidacy last year by giving him a solid second place finish behind former Sen. Paul Tsongas, New Hampshire voters are inclined to stand by their man.

``People who come in here might not be too happy with what he's done,'' says Marshall Millwood, owner of the eponymous barber shop near City Hall. ``But most of them say he's at least trying and that you owe him a chance to do what he's doing.''

The wait-and-see view is especially strong when it comes to the economy, Clinton's top issue in last year's presidential campaign. Storefronts closing

To many Keenites, things appear pretty grim here. Many of the storefronts on Main Street are shuttered. Sears and Woolworth stores, retailing fixtures in town for most of the 20th century, have closed down this year as part of a larger restructuring ordered by corporate managers in far-off Chicago and New York.

``It's tough to be losing your job right before Christmas,'' says Woolworth's manager, who identifies himself only as Keith.

Other companies, such as the medical supply firm in nearby Fitzwilliam, are also leaving the area.

``It's a little bit frightening to see so many businesses closing in Keene,'' says Rita Schillement, a cafeteria worker at Keene High School, as she pushes her shopping basket past the nearly empty shelves at Woolworth. ``And a lot of businesses that haven't closed have had to cut back and lay off people.'' Economy better than expected

Many people across the country express similarly pessimistic views in opinion surveys about the state of the economy. Actually, the economy isn't doing as badly as most people seem to think. Nationally, economists estimate about 4 percent growth in the fourth quarter of 1993, and retail sales are up during the Christmas shopping season.

In Keene, the decay on Main Street disguises positive developments elsewhere.

* The city planning office is inundated with applications from K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Bradlees, and other major department stores that want to build or expand outlets on the edge of town.

* Many small businesses are also opening their doors in the scenic Monadnock region of New Hampshire, a two-hour drive from Boston.

``We've got more projects on our plate than we did in the go-go '80s,'' says Jack Dugan, president of the Keene Industrial Development Corp. ``Yet people feel downbeat because they think Main Street is dying. The reality is that it's transforming, not dying.''

Even though the perception of economic malaise may not jibe with the reality, President Clinton hasn't been hurt so far by public attitudes.

Many people seem to agree with Dan Most, an accountant in Keene, who says, ``The economy is still pretty tight. But I don't hold the president accountable. He's got no control over it.''

Of course, that's a mixed blessing for the president. As long as people think the economy is struggling, this attitude helps him. But as the economy starts to gain speed, Clinton may have trouble claiming credit for the upturn. Willing to wait

The good news for Bill Clinton is that he is the beneficiary of diminished expectations. After years of seeing Washington fail to solve the country's problems, or even agree on what the problems are, these flinty New Englanders aren't looking to the Potomac for swift action. Even the appearance of trying to do something is enough to satisfy them, at least for now.

``I was a Bush voter and I think Clinton has done better than I expected,'' says Kathy Fish, an insurance company manager from nearby Chesterfield, N.H. But she adds, ``He's still got a long way to go.''

Even Clinton supporters concede, at least tacitly, that his legislative record is still not established. George Bogosian, who owns a building company in Dublin, N.H., is a committed Democrat and says Clinton ``is the kind of president the country's needed for 20 years.'' But he quickly adds that ``his most important achievement has nothing to do with policy.''

Instead, Mr. Bogosian points to ``the character of his appointees,'' such as Secretary of Defense nominee Bobby Ray Inman. (Inman confirmation glitch, right.) ``Show me another president who's hired a secretary of defense who didn't even vote for him! Clinton is really stretching out and bringing people with the right heart and soul to Washington.''

Most folks here seem to blame the Washington jungle, with its wily interest groups and journalists waiting to pounce on any politician, for Clinton's inability to carry out his full agenda. Many think that the president got a bum rap when some inside-the-beltway pundits wrote him off as a failure after only a few months in office.

Joyce Burland, a psychologist wearing a Hermes scarf, says that Clinton ``got off to a very shaky start'' because ``he was judged by the standards of dazzle, spin control, surface shine.'' In Washington, she says, ``people are very unforgiving and the standards of judgment are false and superficial.'' But Ms. Burland adds that Clinton is now doing better because ``he's learned to play the game, which is essential.''

Needless to say, the ``special interests'' - which no one ever associates with his labor union or senior citizens' association or hunting club - are not very popular in Keene. If Clinton gets blamed for anything, it is for not standing up to these powerful lobbyists.

``The biggest thing that bothers me is when he's compromised on issues like the timber out West or gays in the military,'' says Chris Hadden, who sells jewelry from a pushcart in the Colony Mill Marketplace. ``It's all pressure, all politics. I wish he'd stood by his things a little harder.''

Robert Michaels, executive director of the regional planning commission, is more understanding of Clinton's compromises. As someone who's involved in the political process, he sees the need for accommodating differing positions on a daily basis. ``Compromise is to be expected. It's the nature of politics, as I see it. The important thing is to compromise and move forward.''

But many here worry that Clinton will compromise too much on the biggest issue of 1994 - health care. Michael Hunt, who recently moved to the area from Seattle to open a small store, is especially concerned. Mr. Hunt says that he pays $5,000 annually, one-third of his income, for medical coverage. He's looking for relief from the Clinton plan. ``I would like to see the health plan not gutted by special interests.''

John Harris, the elegantly dressed town archivist in nearby Dublin, N.H., doesn't see the need for reform as much as Hunt does, but he's not opposed to the Clinton plan. ``I'm withholding judgment,'' he says, ``until I see the bill for the program.'' High marks for symbols

Even as these skeptical Yankees weigh the costs and benefits of Clinton's programs, they already have formed a judgement about a crucial area of his presidency: symbolism. In presidential imagery, at least, Clinton scores a clear knockout.

``I appreciate a president who wears blue jeans and does his Christmas shopping at Rockefeller Center,'' says Mr. Michaels, the planning director who, for his part, is dressed in a monogrammed shirt and red tie. ``Bush didn't even know how to buy something at the supermarket.''

Harry Conroy, a retired Congregational minister wearing a green fedora over his snowy white hair, praises Clinton for ``being in touch with the masses of common people.'' Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Conroy says, Clinton ``is making an effort to stay in touch. He's very aware he needs to get out of the White House. I like that.''

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