If party activism were the key, Bush would win this town

In Emmaus, Pa., party foot-soldiers are stumping hard for Bush and the GOP. But are local 'undecideds' heeding them?

It's a brilliant fall morning at the grassy triangle in downtown Emmaus, and Republican committeeman David Bockstanz is planning another onslaught on voters in this down-to-the-wire swing town.

Armed with a meticulously marked street map, Mr. Bockstanz and his troops fan out with placards and bagfuls of glossy campaign pamphlets for presidential contender George W. Bush and local Republican candidates.

Sporting a campaign button that reads "Friends don't let friends vote Democrat," the engineer represents the newer face of Emmaus - suburban, white collar, and predominantly Republican. His door-to-door intensity underscores a party on the rise in a place that used to be solidly Democratic - and that stands in sharp contrast to the Democrats' somewhat lethargic campaign efforts here.

While Democrat Al Gore surged ahead in state polls right after Labor Day, a recent American Research Group survey showed his lead in Pennsylvania is shrinking. Officials for Messrs. Bush and Gore say they have targeted Emmaus and the surrounding Lehigh Valley as a tough battleground in a vital swing state.

Emmaus is known for being politically fickle, narrowly giving the nod to George Bush in 1992 and then to Bill Clinton in 1996. Today, the town is evenly matched with 3,300 Republicans, 3,000 Democrats, and 900 independents, according to August voter-registration figures - a change from the 1970s, when the GOP was outnumbered 2 to 1 among Lehigh Valley voters.

While interviews in this independent-minded community indicate the presidential contest remains a tossup, the disparity in party activism here would tell a different story.

Indeed, if grass-roots involvement were the key to victory, most indications are that the Republican ticket would win. A livelier local-party organization, a more aggressive telephone and literature campaign, and a more systematic get-out-the-vote effort may help give Bush an edge.

"The Democrats tend to be an older party, based on the unions, and they are losing population," says Frank Colon of Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem. "They need new blood of some sort - a good shot of 20- to 30-year-olds."

Along the quiet streets with neatly clipped lawns, posters for Bush and Republican candidates such as Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Patrick Toomey easily outnumber those for Democrats. GOP strategists hope the strength of state and local Republican candidates will draw out conservative voters and buoy Bush in the region - what they dub a "reverse coattail effect."

"I don't think any Santorum voters would vote against Bush," says Bockstanz.

In contrast, the Democrats' "coordinated campaign" strategy in Emmaus is falling short of its name, party activists say. Touted by Gore campaign headquarters in Philadelphia, it is supposed to pool resources to enable Gore to piggyback on voter-outreach efforts of state and local Democratic candidates - such as labor leader Ed O'Brien, who is challenging Representative Toomey - and vice versa.

Yet local Democratic campaign officials say the reality tends to be every man for himself. "As for Gore, [the effort] is totally ad hoc," says an O'Brien campaign worker in nearby Allentown, Pa., requesting anonymity. "There should be a coordinated campaign, but there is not."

The Gore campaign has also failed to call on longtime Democratic activists in Emmaus. Indeed, it was unable to meet repeated requests to identify any local activists.

"I don't know if they forgot about Emmaus or what," says John Shafer, a former bank worker and deputy fire chief, as he watches TV football in his living room one recent Sunday afternoon. "No one contacted me to put signs in the yard or anything," says Mr. Shafer, who with his wife, Maryanne, is a Democratic committeeman in Emmaus's Second District.

Across town on 12th Street, a similar report comes from Helen Miller, the matriarch of Emmaus Democrats. "I have nothing to hand out," says Mrs. Miller, a septuagenarian who mows her own lawn and rakes leaves for neighbors.

Known locally as "Mrs. Democrat," Mrs. Miller started as a committeewoman 45 years ago, when the ladies of the Emmaus Women's Democratic Club still spoke German. Today, she displays Democratic paraphernalia ranging from a 1938 Franklin Roosevelt campaign button to a John Kennedy teacup, and even keeps old Clinton-Gore signs in her basement. She glowingly recalls shaking hands with Kennedy and, later, Mr. Clinton.

Miller's kindly smile hides a steely party fighter. She has unabashedly backed Democrats at the polls - lobbying outside voting stations and persuading seniors, whom she helps fill out tax forms, to vote Democrat ("they owe me a favor"). She even fibs, telling Republican callers she will vote GOP "to influence their poll numbers," she says with a wink.

But Miller is dismayed by what she sees as a lack of aggressiveness by local Democratic Party officials. "People just don't want to be bothered," she sighs.

The lopsided party efforts in Emmaus may not prove decisive, however, in winning over swing voters. Interviews with undecided residents suggest many have had no contact from either party. Others say they pay little attention to campaign literature, phone calls, and TV ads. Instead, they are forming their opinions on the basis of news coverage and the three presidential debates.

Jim Engelman, a Republican, pays little heed to the position papers Bockstanz hands him outside his tidy home. "I never really vote a straight ticket," says the vending-machine supplier, cuddling his fluffy white Shih Tzu, Tyler. He wants to prevent either party from winning both Congress and the presidency.

Tallies from hundreds of recent calls by the Bush campaign phone bank to Republicans likely to vote in Emmaus underscore this lingering ambivalence. One in 6 voters said they remain undecided.

The Gore phone bank is not identifying wavering Democrats in the area, only urging them to vote. But of a small sample of Democrats interviewed recently in Emmaus, none had been called.

Stepping out of the historic Emmaus Moravian Church, a pristine white landmark on Main Street, resident Cathie Ingram says she's received no campaign calls or literature. An undecided Democrat, she is unenthusiastic about her choices. "Gore swings both ways depending on who he wants to impress at the moment," says the college secretary. "And Bush, he doesn't have a clue."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the two campaigns is that voters here - and in Pennsylvania generally - often hold political views at odds with their party mainstream. Democrats tend to be more culturally conservative, and Republicans more economically liberal.

So voters such as Otto Slozer, a forklift driver and former town leader, face a dilemma. "I'm a conservative Democrat and union official, so my first instinct is to go with the Democratic Party," he says over dinner at the Superior Diner. "But the Democratic Party will get hurt in Pennsylvania with their ultra-leftist position on gun control," says Mr. Slozer, a gun owner who opposes curbs on firearms.

This aversion to strict party loyalty is reflected in local Emmaus politics. As the town wrestles with growth and change, mixed-party coalitions have formed around heated issues such as taxes and schools. Here, contests for local office rival the presidential race in intensity.

"This town gets more excited about a borough council election than about a presidential election," says Kathleen Mintzer, chairwoman of the town's Halloween parade.

Indeed, in this community, nothing surpasses the annual Halloween festivities. Virtually the whole town turns out for the celebration, now in its 79th year and complete with hobo bands, floats, and a house-decorating contest.

With ceramic ghosts, fake spider webs, and scarecrows far outnumbering campaign signs in yards, Bockstanz is laying plans to put even this celebration to work for Bush. Trick-or-treaters at his house will get Bush slogans slipped in with the candy. "I'll have a stack of campaign literature," he says, "and will attach a piece of adult-size candy to it and pass it out for the parents."

The first installments of this series ran Sept. 29 and Oct. 6.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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