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In Colorado, Clinton Sought Rocky Mountain Luster

Visit offered a break from the relentless pace of his early months in office

AFTER months of frenetic activity and bruising engagements with Washington's political establishment, President Clinton is taking a break.

His recent sojourn through Colorado - signing a wilderness bill here, golfing amid the aspens of Vail, and, in the ultimate "photo-op," meeting with the Pope - has given him widespread visibility in the Rocky Mountain West.

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It is probably good.

For despite the president's recent rise in the polls, he still needs some image repair in a region he did surprisingly well in last November. Many residents of the Rocky Mountain West, as elsewhere, remain skeptical of the president's economic plan. And, more than in most regions, they're more than a little distrustful of government, a little more uppity about taxes, and this increase in grazing fees - what's that?

"I have a sense that they are playing worse in the West than they are nationwide," says former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm (D), referring to some recent decisions the president has made, which he nevertheless agrees with. "He has made a series of hard decisions that I think have had a little bigger impact on the West because of some historic characteristics."

Polls and anecdotal evidence indicate the president may not be faring that much worse here than elsewhere, but neither is he quite ready for prime election time:

* A new statewide survey shows the president's approval rating in Colorado at 45 percent and his disapproval rating at 47 percent. That is a six-point jump in approval since June.

But, in a fictional three-way matchup for 1996, Mr. Clinton is doing no better than running even with Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and Texas billionaire Ross Perot - this in a state he was the first Democrat to carry since Lyndon Johnson. He was also the first to carry Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada.

"Some of the Democrats are coming back to the fold," says Paul Talmay, a Boulder-based pollster. "But to carry the state, he has to be doing better than he is now."

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* On Pat Turner's talk radio show in Cheyenne, Wyo., listeners calling in are overwhelmingly "angry" at the White House, the host says, though she hastens to add that her audience is predominantly conservative.

Callers in the defense-dependent area didn't like the president's relaxing of the ban on homosexuals in the military. But, as much as the decision itself, they didn't like that, if he was going to abolish the ban, he didn't "stick to his guns" and do it entirely.

When callers are supportive of the president, they usually talk along these lines: We don't like everything he is doing, but let's give him a chance. "That is about as forgiving as my listeners get, says Ms. Turner, news director of KFBC. "And they are becoming less so."

* "Letters to the editor" coming into the Billings, Mont., Gazette indicate that voters in that area had been eager to have a change in the White House. But they "feel he has not really fulfilled that promise," according to one writer who sifts through the responses. Grumbling over new taxes

The administration's plan to increase fees for grazing livestock on federal lands has brought a lot of grousing in the state. So has the higher gasoline tax, which residents in the wide-open West perceive will hurt them more.

In the end, though, the grazing fee may not be a defining issue: The West is one of the most urbanized regions of the country, and most city dwellers don't care that much about it.

And don't forget, adds the Gazette writer, President Reagan's popularity in the region was negligible in the first couple of years, too.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton can take solace in history. The last Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, touched off a Pikes Peak of protest with his abolition of several huge water projects.

"Jimmy Carter caused a firestorm in the West," says Mr. Lamm. "Clinton has caused a slow burn." Tough choices

Lamm, director of the University of Denver's Center for Public Policy, attributes any regional antipathy toward the president to tough choices he had to make on tough issues. He says tax increases don't play well in a region with a history of tax revolts.

He also says the ethos of independence and lack of a sense of community make concerns like providing health care for all less important here than in some other regions.

Others, though, interpret any lack of popularity to bad choices rather than tough ones.

Coloradoans come down like other Americans on most issues. In the recent poll, residents said by a 2-to-1 margin that they didn't think the president's economic plan would cut the deficit.

"It plays here just as it plays nationally," says Robert Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College. "There is concern that there aren't enough spending cuts" and that it won't reduce the deficit.

Still, some respondents noted that, even though they don't always agree with Mr. Clinton, they think he is doing a good job as president.

Certainly, it didn't do him any harm to meet with Pope John Paul II, whose visit here is being compared to the 1858 gold rush in importance and may have evoked as much frenzy.

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