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A Small Town Eyes The Candidates

ASIDE from a few bumper stickers for George Bush, the only other public evidence of presidential politics here in heartland Republican Smethport [population 1800] is nailed to one of the trees on Main Street.

Jack Wilson hammered it there with political fervor and hope in front of his family home. It's a small, grass-roots sign for Ross Perot with three local phone numbers for people to call who want to get involved.

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"The government has lost all credibility," says Mr. Wilson, a recent political science graduate from the University of Pittsburgh. "The policies of Reagan and Bush have bankrupted us," he says.

"What Perot has shown me is a willingness to be a true leader, to face the tough problems and try to get answers. We need 38,000 petition signatures statewide to get him on the ballot," he says, seated in the living room of his stately 1860s house, "and for McKean county we're going to get 2,300 signatures easily."

But C. Russell Johnson, Republican county chairman and former mayor of Smethport, is not so sure Perot is going to sweep so many Smethport Republicans off their feet, or other Republicans across the country. He says 80 percent of the voters in the county are Republican. "They're loyal to a fault," he says.

To Mr. Johnson, the Perot petition drive is noise without substance. "You can get just about any American to sign a petition," he says. "Perot is trying to be all things to all people, and I expect he'll bottom out soon when people see he doesn't have a specific program. Bush was low in the ratings last time, then he came on to win. I've had a lot of people say to me, `Perot can't buy my vote with his money.' "

Johnson has owned a men's clothing store on Main Street for 33 years. He says his customers look for clothes that reflect their values: sturdy, long-lasting, and not too fancy. On a desk at the back of the store are a cluster of photos of him standing with congressmen, senators, governors - and President Bush. McKean county is in the northwest part of the state, just below Bradford and not far from Cyclone, a township no bigger than one of Smethport's side streets.

"This is a great place to live," says Nelson Tanner, coming out of the Market Basket with a bag of groceries. The words on the front of his cap say, "Never mind the dog, beware the owner."

"Bush had his chance," says Mr. Tanner, who works for the highway department, "let someone else have a chance at it now. To me the war with Iraq was a mistake; you know, charity begins at home, and the government needs to help Americans in need, not people in other countries. I don't know if I'll vote for Perot yet."

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Carol Kraus stops and says, "I'll stick with President Bush. He gets blamed because of the economy, but no matter who was there it would have gone the way it did. I like Bush."

Smethport's current mayor, Phil Smith, who unseated Johnson by 52 votes, says, "Perot scares me a little bit because he can talk a good game. Sometimes it's best to stay with what you've got. I voted for Bush in the last election. I know there's a lot against him this time, but if I had to vote today, it would be for Bush. The thing about Perot is the unknown, his vagueness, but people are sick of politics and all the problems. They want answers."

In front of the Kwik Fill gas station on Main Street, Brian Scharro, the area manager for the chain, is watching dozens of cars line up around the block to fill up with gas for 49 cents a gallon, a promotion in connection with a local radio station. "People are disenchanted with politics, the way the system is out of control," he says. "I've got to admit that Perot looks pretty interesting, but he's got to start taking a stand on the issues. I'm not pleased with what Bush has done, and with a vice presid ent like Quayle, it's always entertaining, but should politics be entertaining?"

Waiting in line for gas, Melvin Ishman says Perot appeals to him a little better than Bush. "Frankly, I don't get into politics too much," he says, "but I'm listening to what they have to say. Usually I wait to the last minute and then make my decision. I'd say right now it's a toss-up between all three candidates."

Back at the home of Jack Wilson, his mother, Debora Goodwin, confesses that the members of her family are all transplanted Texans - and may be slightly influenced by Perot's Texas roots.

Asked if Perot's lack of political experience could lead to a worsening of problems in the country if he became President, she says angrily, "How could it get any worse? If Perot doesn't win this election, I think it's our last chance to get government back in the hands of the people."

Mr. Wilson, who will go to law school in the fall, wants Perot to "root through the government bureaucracy" and cut 10 percent of the jobs, adopt a flat tax, and abolish the IRS. He says, "Bush said publicly he would do anything to get elected. So, we already know what we'll get from Bush; I think Perot will cut through the nonsense and bring people together to solve the problems."

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