US is content, but ready for change

With the buzz of mowers, fresh-cut grass, and a tang of barbecue smoke filling the Memorial Day weekend air, a buoyant America heads into the summer riding on the economic wave of good fortune, which has powered the country for the past nine years.

But even as the nation's comfort with the fullness of its wallet and the increasing safety of its communities fuel a characteristic American optimism, a sense of disquiet is also stealing across the landscape. And that is already having a political impact on the presidential race.

Usually, incumbents or their heirs in good times are shoo-ins. But this year, the country might go against the grain. Vice President Al Gore is struggling in the polls against Texas Gov. George W. Bush. While it's still early, the sources of unease range from uncertainty about the economy to questions about the moral fiber of the current administration.

You can hear the unease as a sunburned Jack Garvin, fresh from a Memorial Day weekend marathon in Burlington, Vt., talks about the shortage of workers brought on by the booming financial sector.

Or when James Carpenter, who owns a trucking business in Haslet, Texas, worries about sticker shock at the gas pump and the impact on his business.

And as Joe Furnia, a retail fuel manager in Canton, N.Y., bemoans the moral legacy of the Clinton administration.

All three are optimistic about the economy, despite Wall Street's yo-yo-like volatility and the recent round of interest-rate hikes. But only Mr. Furnia knows who he's voting for, and it's not Mr. Gore.

The three are reflective of a complex trend. A recent Gallup Poll found that a whopping 66 percent of Americans rate the economy as "good" or "excellent." But it also found a marked increase in pessimism. The poll, conducted May 18 to 21, found that 37 percent of Americans now say economic conditions are getting worse, compared with only 23 percent in January.

At the same time, no one can exactly put their finger the "most important problem" facing the country. It ranges from education, to healthcare, to morals, depending on which American you talk to.

"Maybe for that reason, people are looking more at the character and personality of the candidates," says Frank Newport, executive director of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J. "There's no demand that they solve a problem like there was in '92 when we had a bad economy."

Jack Garvin voted for Bill Clinton in the last two elections.

With a bevy of weekend tourists crowded into the quaint, but high-toned Warren General Store that he's managed for the past 20 years, he shares his ambiguous feelings about the economy and the two top presidential contenders.

Over a scarred maple table that overlooks the rushing Kids Brook - named because, by town decree, only kids age 15 and under can fish in it - Mr. Garvin now says he has to listen to traffic twice a day during rush hour as thousands of commuters leave the bucolic Mad River Valley for jobs in the cities.

That's good for the economy, but it's also created a shortage of workers. Right now, he considers himself lucky to have enough to staff the general store. Too many of his colleagues are struggling to find help for the coming tourist season.

But Garvin's disquiet runs deeper. He's disappointed, not by the Clinton administration's performance, but by its lack of an apparent backbone. And that's tainted his view of Gore, although he'd like to lean toward him.

In search of character

"I respect a politician that says what he feels and believes, and not one that pays mind to polls and electoral votes, like Gore," he says. But he adds, "My feeling is that Bush is not ready, even though his image has improved over the last couple of months."

Before he makes any decisions, Garvin wants to see many more debates, and a lot less advertising. And he's seriously considering whether third-party candidates, like Green's Ralph Nader, should be included.

Attitudes like that strike fear into some of the vice president's advisers. But others are confident that it's early enough in the race to win over the likes of Garvin, and for Bush to peak, then peter out. They're putting their stake in the summer convention, when the vice president can reiterate this administration's successes before a widely televised audience.

But it's clear his work is cut out for him. Many traditional liberals, who should be the core of the Democratic Party's support, don't believe things are going so well economically, despite the Wall Street rocket.

Sue, who didn't want her last name used, was sitting and knitting a tweed sweater as she waited to board a plane at the Albany airport to visit family in Washington.

"Greed and violence are a big problem in the way I see things," she says. "I see the rich getting richer and not caring that the poor are getting poorer."

She will vote, but she's not sure for whom.

Happy, but undecided

Dave Greenwood of Haverhill, Mass., is a member of another key constituency the Democrats need to worry about. He coaches the New England Boxing Team, which was driving through northern New York on their way to the Junior Olympics in Lake Placid.

He thinks the economy is "excellent," "the kids are basically staying out of trouble," and things are moving "in the right direction." He's the type of voter that should be checking the incumbent's box without blinking an eye.

But Mr. Greenwood does not know for whom he's going to vote for yet.

And polls show he's not alone, in part because of dissatisfaction with Gore's personality, but also because people have got other things on their minds - like the coming summer and the promise of all its delights.

"I don't think a lot about the election," says Jimmy Quinn sitting under a tree listening to blues music at Riverfest, an annual Memorial Day celebration in Little Rock, Ark.

"I mean, it's the lesser of two evils. I'm pretty happy so I'll stick with Gore. I've got a job, food to eat, and it's all OK like it is."

*Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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