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In a Place Where Cows Outnumber the People, Voters Hit the Bull's-Eye

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UNTIL 1976, there were four counties out of the 3,141 in the United States that had voted for the winner in every presidential election.

That year, a county in Wyoming and one in New Hampshire dropped from the list by going for the loser, Gerald Ford. Palo Alto County, Iowa, gave Walter Mondale a thin edge in 1984. Now there's just one bellwether county left, Crook County, Ore.

So how will the one bellwether county that's left go in 1992?

Most of Crook County looks pretty much the way it did back in 1882 when folks around here got fed up with trying to get the nearest sheriff to come 120 miles to stop the vigilante battles between cattle ranchers and sheep raisers. It's still mostly juniper and sage and table-flat mesas, a territory of wide-open spaces where cows far outnumber people and the congressional district is larger than 35 of the United States.

Local residents formed a new county back then, showing the same kind of independence they did later, in 1911, when they started their own railroad (the Union Pacific had bypassed them).

Today they are still a very independent lot, which is why hardly anybody here will predict with any assurance who voters will pick Nov. 3.

"They're kind of going with Clinton, from what I hear," says Alice Mulder, who manages the Ochoco Motel with her husband Bob. "But don't quote me!" she jests.

"People have a tendency to vote for the person and not by party," says county clerk Della Harrison. "I'm a Democrat but I don't vote strictly Democratic." Mrs. Harrison's latest tally of registered voters shows 3,754 Democrats, 3,096 Republicans, 81 independents, 33 Libertarians, and 1,214 "others."

Tony Ahearn, the young managing editor of the twice-weekly Central Oregonian newspaper, calls this "a very conservative area," a place where "it's tough to get a school levy passed." That could work in George Bush's favor, especially since "character" is a big issue when it comes to Bill Clinton. And yet Mr. Ahearn says "people are seeing [Bush] as someone who's not a visionary at all."

`THERE'S a feeling that he didn't bring us anything in four years and he won't bring us anything in another four years," he says.

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