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Fed-Up Voters Are the Key to Nov. 3 Outcome

VOTERS have no deep-down enthusiasm for either presidential candidate. Even partisans at the two conventions were not given to what might be called spontaneous, from-the-heart cheers.

Looking back to 1956, I can say that, barring the Democratic disaster in Chicago in 1968, no conventions have shown less genuine fervor for their candidates than those in New York and Houston this year.

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Oh, yes, lots of hoopla and cheers filled the halls, on cue. But I've never seen so much inattention among delegates during major speeches.

Many of them did appear to be fired up - particularly during the Clinton and Bush acceptance speeches. But look away from the yellers and card wavers and you would see, too often, little circles of delegates chatting amiably about something else.

What, then, is behind these less than spontaneously tumultuous conventions and rather tepid campaigns?

The answer is clear: Voters have lost confidence in governmental processes at every level, but particularly in Washington. Their real enthusiasm is for "something else" - or, as many polls of the presidential race have disclosed, for "none-of-the-above."

When you have rank-and-file voters that unhappy - feeling that both Gov. Bill Clinton and George Bush are the kinds of politicians they've grown weary of - well, it is little wonder there was little of the old-time brand of heartfelt enthusiasm on display either at the conventions or on the campaign trails with the candidates.

Remember how the polls only shortly before the Democratic convention had shown Ross Perot about even with President Bush and a bit ahead of Governor Clinton?

These polls indicated that Mr. Perot was the only one of the three who had a significant body of completely solid supporters, fully sold on their man.

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Then Perot dropped out, leaving his troops in dismay. Some, to pollsters, conceded they now probably would vote for Clinton.

Some - fewer, it seems - said they now would back Bush, but not with any passion. But on the strength of the Perot departure the Clinton candidacy took off, overtaking Bush.

What this suggests is that there are a lot of voters out there who, even if they have told pollsters otherwise, remain undecided. They remain less than committed to either of the candidates.

I thought a Florida woman reflected what may happen with many of these voters when she explained to me that she and her husband had voted for Bush four years ago.

"My husband," she said, "says he's going to vote for Clinton. I may vote for Bush. But if Perot is on the ballot both of us will vote for him."

When Jimmy Carter was president, he talked about a public "malaise." He sensed back then an attitude that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years: a discontent with things as they are, an unhappiness - even anger - with the way the current corps of political officeholders is running the country.

Perot spoke to those discontented millions. They now are left adrift.

Clinton, obviously, is at this point attracting more of what might be called the "alienated American" vote than is Bush. Being a newcomer to the national political scene, it is much easier for him than for the president to cast himself as the candidate of "change." He calls himself that again and again.

But many Americans see Clinton's message as quite confusing. They hear a lot of talk - about economic growth, holding the line on taxes (except on the "rich"), turning welfare recipients into workers, etc. - that echoes the traditional Republican approach. Indeed, to many voters Clinton sounds like a "me-too" candidate.

And Bush isn't able to be very convincing as he tries, somehow, to convince people that he, not Clinton, is the authentic architect of change and that all that's kept him from applying needed solutions to problems in the economy, education, environment, and in dealing with crime and, particularly, drugs, is that nasty Democrat-controlled Congress.

Up to now, the president has not been able to sell this position. He certainly hasn't been able to fire up the electorate the way Harry Truman once did.

So the mood out there among Americans isn't apathetic, as some observers have said. Instead, voters are intensely interested in what is going on. But they've "had it" with the old political rhetoric and the old political promises. That's what was clearly being shown at the conventions.

Where will these "fed-up" voters go come Nov. 3?

I contend that their vote is up for grabs - and that where it finally goes will decide the election.

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