The Race For The Rust Belt

George Bush, alighting from Air Force One in his new guise as benefactor of the downtrodden, has been showering federal dollars on voters in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

Bill Clinton has shed his pinstripes and donned a mechanic's hat. Venturing into South Carolina in search of the "Bubba" vote, Clinton joshed his way through a stint as Grand Marshal of the Darlington 500 stock-car race--and drew beer-drenched boos from good ol' boys in the stands.

Viewing these scenes, it would be easy to conclude that the candidates are focusing all their energies on the up-for-grabs Southern states. In fact, the faltering economy is dictating another script. Increasingly, it's clear that the race will be decided in the Midwest, where an eroding manufacturing base and stagnating wages give Clinton an edge. "People are very down over the economy in this region," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "There's a greater sense that the middle class is under siege."

With the recession's ravages felt most deeply on the nation's coasts, California and the Northeast lean Democratic. Clinton and running mate Al Gore are slicing into the South. That gives Bush no choice but to target Midwestern swing states. "For Bush, it all comes down to the old Rust Bucket strategy," says GOP analyst John Sears. "He must win there."

So far, though, Bush is mostly encountering heartburn in the heartland. Polls show him trailing Clinton by 10% in Ohio, 12% in Wisconsin, and 19% in Illinois. GOP strategists hope that a burst of new Presidential campaigning, coupled with a Sept. 10 address expected to dole out modest goodies to small business, will give their man a lift. But Bush must wage a two-pronged offensive, repairing his coalition as he reaches out to undecided voters. "We've got a lot of work to do just shoring up our base," says Jill Hanson, a top Bush operative. "We have to work on the Reagan Democrats and suburban independents and try to make them understand that Bush is better on jobs than the other guy."

That'll be tough, based on BUSINESS WEEK interviews conducted over the Labor Day holiday. The outlook:

-- Wisconsin. Michael Dukakis won the state in 1988, and it may go Democratic again. Bush visited Waukesha on Sept. 7, but his calls for product-liability reform puzzled listeners who hoped to hear about jobs. That's one reason John Strong, 43, a Hartland teacher who voted for Reagan and Bush, is switching to Clinton. "Corporations are sending their jobs wherever they can make a buck," Strong says. "The status quo is no longer acceptable."

-- Illinois. Dissatisfaction with the economy and a national campaign team laden with Illinois pols make the state a good prospect for Clinton. To complicate matters for Bush, the Democratic Senate candidacy of Carol Moseley Braun may boost the turnout of blacks and pro-choice women--groups hostile to the President. Patti Scott, 45, a Schiller Park purchasing agent, was energized by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. She'll vote for Braun and Clinton and says the GOP has become "too extreme." Barbara Burrell, a black Democrat who heads a Chicago-based marketing firm, feels Bush's "family values" kick is misguided: "If you don't have a job, it's difficult to keep a family together."

Bush hopes to carry the state by holding on to downstate farmers, while winning back blue-collar workers and suburbanites. On Sept. 6, he visited a Polish festival in Chicago and charged: "While we're eating kielbasa, Clinton is offering pie-in-the sky." Alas, the pitch fell flatter than an off-key polka.

Elsewhere, voters haven't been swayed by claims that the economy is mending. Margie Ferral, a Ramsey farmer, voted Republican in the past but can't stomach the thought of going for Bush. "In foreign policy, he's O. K., but it's too late in the election for him to help the economy." Ferral's dilemma: "I don't think much of Clinton, either. Every time he stops his bus tour, he gives more things away."

-- Ohio. Polls show Clinton leading, but Ohio's GOP tradition and the popularity of Governor George Voinovich will help Bush. Right now, both candidates are hitting the Buckeye State hard. On Sept. 5, the President spoke at an Oktoberfest rally in working-class Painesville. Clinton chose to celebrate Labor Day at Cincinnati's Riverbend Park.

Despite all the attention, Ohioans haven't decided which candidate has more credibility on the economy. Glen Weidenbein, a Cincinnati-area farmer, says "Clinton might bring people back to work" but worries about tax hikes. Linda Drinnon, a General Electric Co. worker from Franklin, has less trouble choosing. "Bush's 'thousand points of light' add up to a poor economy," she says. "It's time for a change."

-- Michigan. Despite a 9% unemployment rate, the state is a potential GOP bright spot. Bush has made inroads by hammering Clinton's plan to hike auto-mileage standards. Says Democratic consultant Gerald Austin: "Bush has painted Clinton as anti-auto industry."

Felicia Heppner, 36, a divorced mother of two who listened to Bush speak in Hamtramck, isn't impressed. "We should be more worried about health care and the economy," says Heppner, who voted for Bush in 1988 but now backs Clinton.

-- Missouri. This border state has predicted every Presidential victor since 1956. This year, it's a fierce battleground, as Clinton and Bush vie for the mantle of Harry S Truman.

Some residents of the show-me state think they've seen quite enough of Bush's economic management. "Bush is saying the economy's going back up," scoffs Carl Lashbrook, an auto worker from Independence. "He has no idea what it's like out here." Dick Rose, from Riverside, says that "the economy is getting worse by the day." He ought to know. Rose runs a business that sells repossessed cars.

Does the econo-angst mean that the Rust Belt will tidily hand the election to Clinton? Hardly. Midwesterners are an independent lot. And Bush's new focus on the region could erase Clinton's lead. What Bush doesn't have is time--or help from the economy. "We're going to have to fight and kick every day, going state to state," says a top campaign official. "It's going to be very tough. And the economic numbers? They're devastating. Absolutely devastating."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.