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The Voter

The public is jittery over joblessness and the future of the middle class. For the first time in 12 years, a sitting president walks a tough road to reelection - a Monitor campaign special report.

LIKE Ishmael in "Moby Dick," Americans are "growing grim about the mouth" as the longest recession since World War II bites into their paychecks and sends many companies into bankruptcy.

When Ishmael became depressed and had "little or no money in [his] purse," as Herman Melville wrote, he put out to sea to raise his spirits. But in 1992, landlocked Americans may take an easier course: They may toss their politicians out of Congress and the White House.

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In New Hampshire, scene of the nation's first presidential primary on Feb. 18, the grimness grows steadily worse. Unemployment in December rose sharply to 7.8 percent, the highest in 10 years. Nearly everyone here seems to have a tale of woe.

Rick Trombly, a Democratic state legislator, tells this story:

One of his neighbors in Boscawen, N.H., lost his job recently - as thousands of others in New Hampshire have. Unable to find work here, the neighbor traveled to North Carolina, but so far has found nothing.

Meanwhile, cash at home was running low, so the neighbor's wife sold her clothes dryer a few days ago for $45. The money bought food, and a little time, for her and their four children. Now the gas bill and the electric bill have arrived, and she has nothing left to pay them.

"Mr. President, is this what you mean by family values?" Mr. Trombly asks. "Is this a kinder, gentler America? ... I do not believe the hungry in America are more deserving than the hungry in Russia ... but I certainly believe our homeless, and our poor, and our sick are just as deserving."

America in 1992 has many stories like that - families suffering hardships in California and Massachusetts, in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Workers are being laid off in auto, aircraft, electronics, ball-bearings, and dozens of other basic industries. Millions of people have lost not only their jobs, but their health insurance, their life's savings, and sometimes their homes.

The once-invincible George Bush now faces a conservative rebellion on his right, led by commentator Patrick Buchanan, and a rejuvenated Democratic Party on his left. Public confidence in his stay-the-course economic policies is rapidly eroding.

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There is probably no better place than New Hampshire to test the nether side of America's mood, to measure the depths of despair and the loss of hope.

Since Bush last campaigned here in 1987-88, unemployment has tripled, housing starts have plunged to less than one-fourth their previous level, bankruptcies have grown 600 percent, and the number of people on food stamps is up threefold. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes have gone on the auction block.

What worries people here is that they still don't see any daylight. Layoffs continue - most recently, 30 jobs were cut by Miniature Precision Bearings, a subsidiary of Timkin Corp., in Keene, N.H. - and the recession is already the longest since World War II.

America has had serious recessions before. But pollsters, pundits, and the general public all sense something different about this one.

There is fear that the American middle class, long the backbone of the United States economy, is losing control over its financial future. Again and again, one hears the concern that tomorrow's generation of Americans won't be able to match the living standards and economic security of their parents.

Larry Hugick, a Gallup pollster, says public confidence has sunk to the lowest level since the 1982 recession with just 24 percent of Americans satisfied with the way things are going in the country.

New England is the gloomiest, but "now the rest of the country is catching up to the Northeast," he says.

One difference this time: Many Americans have forgotten what bad times are like after the 10-year boom of the 1980s. "We sort of got spoiled," Mr. Hugick says.

The current depressed public mood, however, offers Democrats their best chance in a decade to regain the White House.

Pollster Stanley Greenberg, whom author and journalist Peter Brown calls "a prophet without honor in the Democratic Party," has explored the public mood in depth, and now is acting as a consultant to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

In a report prepared by Greenberg-Lake with his partner, Celinda Lake, Mr. Greenberg's firm concluded that Bush's sharp drop in personal popularity since the Persian Gulf war indicates a close election battle in 1992.

"The president is in a fight for his life," the report notes. "Democrats have an enormous opportunity to take advantage of their appeal to the middle class on the politics of living (like education and health) and the role of government in their lives. Voters soundly reject the Republicans' laissez faire philosophy of the 1980s; they do not believe the private sector can solve the country's domestic problems."

That jibes with the views of another "hot" Democratic consultant, James Carville, who masterminded Harris Wofford's upset victory over Republican Dick Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania race for the US Senate last year.

Following that election, Mr. Carville told an interviewer that the Republicans "ought to do something about what's happened to the middle class in this country. I think they ought to do something about the declining GNP [gross national product], about declining personal income, and a host of other problems."

Carville says the critical issues for the GOP will be health care, tax fairness, competitiveness, trade, education, and environment. Unless Bush deals with those, Republicans "are going to have a bad 1992."

New Hampshire will set the tone. Mr. Buchanan's maverick campaign against the president for the Republican nomination will gauge how willing Americans are to translate economic anger into political action.

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