Midwest: the Nation's New Bellwether

Region's popular GOP governors to lend Dole their fund-raising and organizational expertise

AS goes Ohio, so goes the rest of the nation.

It has become a point of local pride: Since World War II, Ohio has almost always voted with the winner in every presidential election - and by roughly the same margins. The exception was 1960, when Ohio went for Richard Nixon by a few thousand votes.

Michigan makes its own claim as the ultimate bellwether. In the last four presidential elections - beginning with the historic realignment of 1980 - Michigan has not only voted with the winner but also matched the national percentages within one point.

And the winner is.... It doesn't really matter. The whole region, including both states, and the other two that are voting today in primary elections, Illinois and Wisconsin, together make up the key battleground of the fall race that will likely pit Republican Sen. Bob Dole against President Clinton. Both camps are keenly aware of this fact.

"The way 1996 is shaping up, the Midwest is at least as important as it was in 1992," says Ann Lewis, communications director of the Clinton campaign.

The Midwest's importance to Senator Dole is highlighted by the fact that all four governors from today's primary states are often mentioned as potential running mates. Political scientists argue that vice presidential nominees do little to help the top man on the ticket, but a popular Republican governor such as Michigan's John Engler or Ohio's George Voinovich may be just enough to hand Dole a victory in one of these states. Even if one of them is not selected as a running mate, the Midwest governors offer the Dole camp organizational, fund-raising, and other benefits.

A governor - an outsider with executive-branch experience - would also complement Dole's resume as an insider who knows how to work Washington. Further, the Midwest's Republican governors have been at the forefront of innovation in welfare reform, a central Republican goal that Dole and an Engler or a Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin's chief executive) could tout on the stump.

Another possible plus for Engler, Thompson, and Voinovich: They're all Roman Catholics, and Catholics make up a key swing constituency in the Midwest.

For now, Clinton looks strong in the Midwest, as he does nationally. In a recent Michigan poll, Clinton beats Dole 51 to 39 in a two-way race. If Ross Perot runs, the breakdown goes Clinton 44, Dole 32, Perot 18. But November is a long way off, and most voters haven't really focused on the race. Clinton's team need only look at President Bush's high polling numbers from four years ago to understand that nothing is certain.

But as long as the regional economy remains strong - Ohio's jobless rate last year averaged 4.8 percent - Dole will face an uphill battle. Even at an enthusiastic reception Governor Voinovich held for Dole recently in Columbus, a Republican bastion, some Dole supporters were cautious about Dole's chances in this state.

"I don't know if Dole can win Ohio," said a businessman from southern Ohio. "Clinton's awfully good at telling people what they want to hear."

The question for Clinton is whether he can strike just the right chord with the anxious middle, touting the glowing economic statistics (8.4 million jobs created in three years) while acknowledging worker concerns about downsizing. The Clinton campaign points to his recent speech in working-class Taylor, Mich., as a foretaste of his campaign message. "We know that even as we create jobs, millions of people feel less secure in the jobs they have," Clinton said.

"This is certainly a state where concerns about economic security are substantial," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University. He also sees Michigan as wide open politically. Voters are divided equally among Republicans, Democrats, and independents, with 31 percent of the electorate each and 7 percent "other."

In Ohio, University of Cincinnati pollster Al Tuchfarber reports a slight edge for Democrats among registered voters, but in turnout it's a dead heat: 45 percent Democratic, 45 percent Republican, and 10 percent independent.

In the 1994 congressional elections, Ohio reflected the national trend by tossing out many Democrats and sending Republicans to Washington. "But we don't expect partisanship to shift Ohio," says Mr. Tuchfarber. "It goes back and forth in this state."

The most noteworthy development in the run up to today's "rust belt" primaries is the precipitous decline of Pat Buchanan's fortunes. He should have found a strong constituency here: a substantial working-class, anti-abortion population that wants to protect its jobs and keep out foreign competition.

But even among strikers interviewed at the General Motors brake plant in Dayton, Mr. Buchanan's name didn't even come up. The race for the nomination was already sewn up by the time the campaign came to the Midwest, and Buchanan's dyed-in-the-wool support has dropped to well below the 20 to 25 percent analysts thought he'd get wherever he went.

The Ohio Poll, a tracking survey put out by the University of Cincinnati, has shown Buchanan losing a point every several days since the New Hampshire primary.

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