Who Will Benefit in Era Of the 'Unruffled' Voter

On politics' penultimate day, voters remain detached as Dole stumps nonstop and Clinton touts a feel-good future. Congress remains a tossup

Little Hallie Henry is too young to vote, but when the subject of politics comes up, she behaves like many voting-age Americans who either will or won't go to the polls tomorrow: She fidgets.

The youngster perches reluctantly in a grocery cart outside a Tom Thumb food store in suburban Dallas while her mother expresses her own misgivings on the subject. "Dole has really missed the boat," Kitty Henry says. "I would have been open to Dole, but I don't really understand his campaign. [Besides], I think things are going really well for country, and I don't see any need for a change."

Tomorrow marks the end of the longest presidential campaign in history, one that by some measures started the day after Republicans took control of Congress two years ago. Across the country, voters are relieved the denouement, however undramatic, has finally come.

Much of the anger that characterized the anti-incumbent tone of the past three elections is gone. The economy is relatively strong and crime is down. Many Americans are feeling prosperous. Many feel Congress has done a better job recently.

Even so, many voters express frustration that the election didn't offer a starker choice or more substantive debate on important issues. For all the talk of differences, President Clinton and GOP challenger Bob Dole emerged as two men fighting largely for the great American middle.

Instead of a discussion of how to solve Medicare, voters heard monologues about campaign finance and college loans. Instead of more debate over the role of government, the candidates offered conflicting, and at times fact-contorted, views on taxes and the economy.

As a result, this year may see the lowest voter turnout since 1988. And for those who do vote, decisions may be based more on personal comfort than national interest.

"Nothing is biting people," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "This election will not be against anything, and it will not be an affirmation of anything. All the candidates have hustled their way into the middle and put off the essential battle of the 104th Congress - the debate over government."

Voter apathy is apparent in the numbers. While registration reached its highest level since 1968, due in large part to the so-called motor-voter law of 1993, the turnout for gubernatorial and US Senate primaries state by state fell to a record low. The Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate estimates that 90 million eligible voters may not mark ballots tomorrow.

The numbers show the "continuing and growing disaffection of potential voters from the two major parties," says Curtis Gans, CSAE's director, in a study released Friday.

One of those disaffected voters is Barbara Tupper, an art gallery worker in Ashland, Ore. Asked what she expects of the next president, she says of both Clinton and Dole: "Sad to say, but not a whole lot."

"The political process has been getting more and more dishonest," Ms. Tupper says. "I have found that you can't believe what they say, which makes it very confusing in trying to vote.... I'm a little bit leery of what both candidates would do on their own, so I would want some balance ... a kind of hedge." In other words, she's more apt to vote one party for president, the other for Congress, she says.

Those are just the kind of words that characterized the backlashes against incumbents in the opening years of the decade, when voters were impatient with politicians who abused the perquisites of office. So why don't voters seem to be on the verge of another sweep of government?

There may be several reasons. Consider the experience of farmers in North Dakota, where corn has risen to $5.40 a bushel, more than twice the norm. Even though Dole appeals to the real economic concerns of people working longer hours or multiple jobs, it is hard to argue against the positive economic figures Clinton has enjoyed this year.

"I'm 69 and have voted for nobody but Republicans. My dad, too," a farmer told D.J. Leary, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "But Dad never saw $5 for corn. I'm going with the guy who did that."

Another reason is that many of the scandals of today are more complex and difficult to place blame. In 1990, voters could literally count the number of so-called bounced checks written by their representatives and tie direct blame. The recent flurry over foreign campaign contributions, however, is more confusing, and many voters don't know whether to blame the parties, individual politicians, or the system. What is clear, however, is that most voters are apt to think both sides are guilty.

"We have to change the whole way we raise money for candidates," says Richard Harris, a realtor in Ashland, Ore. "Elections are too darn long. And I'm a believer in public funding."

A theme that emerges in discussions with voters across the country is that this election has been a missed opportunity: Neither presidential candidate offered a galvanizing statement on leadership.

Voters are anxious about the future of Medicare, which is expected to become insolvent by 2001, and Social Security, which may become an unfair burden on younger generations when the baby boomers reach retirement age.

Others lament that neither Clinton nor Dole seems interested in addressing poverty. Quinton Smith, a warehouse worker in Dallas, says leadership today is like "a tea party," where foreign leaders like to hobnob.

"The leaders aren't leading us. Who cares about Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat? Until we get a leader that does something to affect people struggling below the poverty line to make it, then there's no leadership."

Voters coast to coast say leadership in America has lost a quality of morality, which adds to their ambivalence on election day.

"I'd like a president with a more moral background," says Lori Royal, a tour guide at Mayfield Dairy Farms in Athens, Tenn. "There are some things about Clinton I don't like, and there are some things about Dole I don't like. It will be hard this year."

* Staff writers Sam Walker in Dallas, Brad Knickerbocker in Ashland, Ore., and Elizabeth Levitan Spaid in Athens, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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