Future of `New' Democrats Tested in Pennsylvania Race

Fickle suburban voters, now the largest and most powerful voting bloc in the country, are being courted by both parties in a bellwether election for US Senate

THE owners of the lush lawns and cookie-cutter single-family homes sprouting all over suburban Philadelphia hold the fate of United States Sen. Harris Wofford in their hands.

In an upset, Democrat Wofford won these predominantly Republican suburbs in a 1991 special election by preaching change and health-care reform. In 1992 - the first year in US history that suburban voters made up a majority of the electorate - Bill Clinton carried these and other suburbs across the country with a similar message.

But residents and observers say Mr. Wofford this year, and Mr. Clinton in 1996, must find a new message that appeals to middle-class suburban voters, now the largest and most powerful voting bloc in the country.

``I think a lot of the bluster has been taken out of the health-care debate,'' says Andy, a young businessman who just moved with his wife from downtown Philadelphia to the affluent suburbs of Delaware County. ``It could [hurt Wofford].''

The stakes are enormous. Republican and Democratic attempts to adapt to shifting suburban ideas of what government's role should be, if any, in society will be the dominant political dynamic in the US for the next several decades, analysts say.

If one party can solidify its hold on the suburbs, it could hold majorities in state houses and Congress for years to come.

In Pennsylvania, a 500,000-person drop in Philadelphia's population since World War II has steadily reduced the power of its once formidable Democratic Party machine. The four affluent and predominantly Republican counties that ring the city are some of the state's fastest-growing areas.

They now represent one of the largest voting blocks in Pennsylvania. A similar pattern is occurring around Pittsburgh and many other cities in the US.

``[Suburban voters are] going to be an even larger majority this year,'' says Walter Dean Burnham, a professor of politics and government at the University of Texas who has studied suburban voting in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston. ``You can't win if you're a Democrat in Pennsylvania and you don't do well in the suburbs. That's a long-term demographic trend.''

Seeking a message

Wofford, who in the latest poll trails Republican challenger Rick Santorum by 11 percentage points, has been struggling to find a message in a race pundits expected him to win easily.

Mr. Santorum, a two-term conservative congressman from the Pittsburgh area, is portraying Wofford, a former college president, as an ineffective, out-of-touch idealist trapped in a 1960s-era big-government-can-solve-everything mentality. ``[Health-care reform] will be resurrected next year and we will take action on it,'' Santorum told a Jewish community group while campaigning recently in Philadelphia. ``This race, probably more than any other race, will have an impact on which direction we go.''

Wofford, speaking to a group of retired union workers in Philadelphia, also portrayed the race in epic terms. ``The election in Pennsylvania may be like a battle of Gettysburg for the United States.... The forces that want to take us back to the '80s - to the policies that failed'' - are back, Wofford said. ``We can send a signal across the country just as people in Pennsylvania helped send a signal in 1991 that they wanted health-care reform.''

Mirroring a national trend, both candidates have tried to portray themselves as moderates who would appeal to suburban voters.

Teresa Heinz, the widow of popular moderate Republican Sen. John Heinz, who was killed in a plane crash in 1991, gave Wofford a large boost last week by attacking Santorum as a conservative ideologue ``incapable of compromise.''

Split vote

But polls have found little enthusiasm for either candidate. Analysts say Wofford and Santorum do not represent the combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that led large numbers of suburban voters to support moderates like the late Senator Heinz, Republican Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and ``suburban'' Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

In interviews, suburban voters complained about government doing little to address social problems like crime, welfare, and health-care reform, but then expressed a lack of confidence in the government's ability to solve them. Neither candidate received high marks and both were criticized for negative attack ads that voters said confused them.

``Suburban voters are more likely to ... be pro-Wofford on social issues and pro-Santorum on fiscal issues,'' says Thomas Baldino, chair of the political science department at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. ``You've got a split there and voters aren't sure what to do.''

University of Texas professor Burnham says voters' seemingly contradictory attitudes about government reflect the continuing evolution of a ``very soft'' and malleable suburban voting bloc. ``It's classic middle-class voter behavior. Lots of oscillation,'' he says. ``They say we want change, but we don't want change.''

Professor Baldino says as that economic pressure on middle-class families mounts, anxiety is rising in the suburbs, but voters aren't sure which party to blame or trust.

``People are really, really frustrated with government and deeply worried about the preservation of their economic well-being,'' Baldino says. ``But people aren't ready to ask the government to protect their jobs because Ronald Reagan convinced them that government doesn't work. The public is in a real quandry now.''

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