From The Heartland, Bleak Tidings For The Gop

Al's Cafe seems to be straight out of a campaign manager's nostalgic dream. Its narrow entrance, on five-block-long Main Street in Steelville, Mo., is flanked on either sideby photos of Miss Harvest Festival of 1991 and Miss Missouri State Fair of 1991 (both local girls who made good). And its cozy pink decor, down-home cooking, and chatty waitresses forever refilling the coffee cups ofmen in feed caps and cowboy boots epitomize small-town America.

But judging from round-table discussions at Al's one morning last week, George Bush had better think twice before visiting this hamlet of 1,500. "I've been Republican all my life, but maybe it's time to stop thinking in terms of Republican or Democrat and look for the man who worries most about the economy and our jobs," fumes Terry J. Brown, union president at the local shoe plant.

MEXICO'S GAIN. Named by the Census Bureau last year as the nation's geographic population center, Steelville is the type of town--small, semirural, white, and traditionally conservative--that Republican strategists have come to depend on in election years. Indeed, the town voted solidly for Bush in 1988. But the economic angst that has gripped both coasts now has spread to these rolling Ozark hills two hours southwest of St. Louis. And folks here doubt that the President's economic plan, to be unveiled on Jan. 28, has a shot at saving many jobs other than his own.

That's how Norma Brakefield sees it. The single mother of two is angry that after Bush pushed for a North American free-trade zone, Zenith Electronics Corp. announced it would stop assembling TVs at its last U.S. assembly plant, 100 miles west of Steelville. "They're moving the jobs to Mexico, where they can pay employees 50c an hour," she complains. "Why is Bush working to give our jobs away?"

Now, Brakefield is worried that her plant, a Brown Shoe Co. facility where wages average $6.50 an hour, might not last without stiffer restrictions against imports. The 350-worker factory is the town's largest single employer. On Jan. 8, parent Brown Group Inc. announced it will soon close three nearby factories, axing 1,150 employees. "It's good for us because we'll probably get some new work at our plant," explains one Steelville worker, "but we know we're getting jobs that somebody else just lost." Unemployment in surrounding Crawford County is already high--it stood at 11.2% in November, almost double the statewide rate and 30% higher than the county's jobless rate a year ago.

For all the anxiety, the mood is nothing like the outright despair in many stretches of New Hampshire. "The economy's tough, but we're not down and out here," says Forrest "Ike" Lovan, who runs an antiques shop on Main Street and heads the Chamber of Commerce. Vacationing St. Louisans, who come to canoe or fish, have bolstered the town's traditional base in forestry, farming, and shoe manufacturing.

Mayor Harold G. Sellers, who works at the Ford dealership across Highway 8 from Al's, blames much of the sluggishness in car sales on media-generated gloom. But he admits there is more to it than that. "The problem is they're paying $18 an hour to make an automobile to sell to the guy making $4.50 an hour," he says. "The gap is just too widetoday."

`BOOTSTRAP APPROACH.' The President might be surprised to learn that the folks at Al's don't want to close that gap with a tax break that merely puts a few extra dollars in pay envelopes by election time. Scoffs insurance agent Bob Hehl: "It's like going to the polling place and handing out $5 bills." Local merchants and plant workers alike hope Bush will concentrate less on such financial maneuvers as capital-gains tax relief and more on an investment tax credit or new tax incentives for creating jobs.

But Steelville isn't counting on Washington to come to the rescue. "Rather than wait on outsiders," says John T. Britton, whose Britton Bros. funeral home is a block away from Al's, "we've got to use the bootstrap approach." A new food pantry is open several days a month, stocked with free food for locals down on their luck and staffed mainly by volunteers. Civic leaders are developing a subdivision using financing from the local telephone cooperative.

If it's any consolation to President Bush, people in Steelville may not be too disappointed in his speech, if only because they weren't expecting much. Says Pete Lea, a vice-president at the local Peoples Bank: "If we country boys tried to solve our problems like the folks in Washington do, we'd be standing out on Main Street with a tin cup."

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