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How Closing Government Doors Strikes the American Public

Life on Main Street goes on but Judy Skinner isn't pleased

THE world's most powerful government shut down this week, but somebody forgot to tell Henry Kozlowski.

''The immediate impact is nil,'' says the computer consultant in ski cap and Nike shoes, standing on a street corner in Chicago. ''These people are nonessential. Nothing's going on.''

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Not so, says Marie Kelly, a Boston retiree. She went to transfer some Social Security funds and found the doors locked. ''The longer they're closed, the longer I have to wait,'' she says.

While Washington plays brinkmanship with the budget, Main Street America is adjusting to life without a full federal government.

Four days into the impasse, people are doing just fine with a diminished Uncle Sam, though others are feeling something, even if it isn't admiration.

Yet, no matter what the impact, virtually everyone has an opinion about the spectacle unfolding in the nation's capital. Which is important.

Though matters of principle are involved in the debate between Republicans and the White House over the debt ceiling and temporary spending measures, politics underlies the dispute. How much resolve each side will show from here will depend in large measure on people's perceptions of who is right or wrong.

President Clinton is doing well in the great blame game so far. Overnight tracking polls show more people pointing fingers at GOP congressional leaders for the shutdown, which sent 800,000 ''nonessential'' workers home Tuesday, than the White House - 49 percent to 26 percent, according to one survey.

Voices on the street echo these sentiments.

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''This is just politics,'' complains Gary Moorer, who sells newspapers in Boston's Back Bay. ''We always have Senator [Bob] Dole complaining that Democrats can't come up with a plan, and then when the Democrats propose something, the Republicans just cut it out.''

Cross-country, in Los Angeles, several people interviewed on street corners, inside malls, and at lunch counters agree.

''It's stupid,'' says cashier Judy Skinner, finishing a three-bean salad outside Ralph's Foodmarket. ''Everyone has deadlines. This is what we are paying them for. They have millions of people depending on them and they are blowing it.''

Several mentioned Sen. Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia as politicians trying to keep themselves in the spotlight by being obstinate and unwilling to budge.

''I'd like to throw out Gingrich,'' says Miriam Elterman, a retired bookkeeper munching a croissant at the ''For Your Table'' Deli. ''Missing a deadline like this ... I'd like to get rid of all of them and start fresh.''

Others note their elected officials have an obligation to keep the government running smoothly. Lawmakers, they say, have had plenty of time to debate their positions and make compromises.

There is also plenty of support, though, for the Republican arguments that many federal programs are unnecessary and could be cut without much pain to the average American.

Take Larry Hudson. ''They need to do this to restructure government,'' says the barrel-chested veteran who works as a security guard at the Patagonia clothing store on posh Newbury Street in Boston. ''They waste too much money. In the Army, they used to have to give helicopter rides [for government officials and congressmen], just for fun.''

Some federal programs are wasteful and ''at times superfluous,'' concurs Thomas Nash, an assistant teacher at Boston's McKinley High School. But, he adds, the ''federal government is here for a reason. The cutbacks don't affect me directly, but they may end up affecting some of my special-needs students.''

Some people have been affected by the shutdown. On Tuesday night, the Rev. Victoria Wakefield was overjoyed when her daughter called long-distance with a Christmas present: an air ticket to visit her in England. ''I was so excited,'' says Wakefield, who has not seen her daughter for 18 months.

The next morning Wakefield realized she might not be able to get a passport in time.

''If I can't go I would be really disappointed,'' she says, her eyes watering as she sat bent over an application form in an office in downtown Evanston, Ill.

Maria Avila, a young Mexican immigrant, rushed into a Chicago-area Social Security office minutes before closing time only to learn she couldn't apply to replace her lost card.

Ms. Avila, wearing a leather jacket and ponytail, says she needs the card to find new work after recently quitting her job as a swing-shift manager at a MacDonald's restaurant in Skokie, Ill.

''Now I'll just have to keep babysitting my little nephew and sister,'' she says with a shrug.

Moments later, Anne-lise Bossug, a blonde high school junior from the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, finds out that the government shut-down will delay her coveted driver's license. Without a social security card, she can't take the driver's test.

''I won't kill myself, but it is a disappointment,'' she sighs, her oversized Irish-knit sweater drooping onto her jeans.

Many voters, of course, feel little contact with the services that have pundits and pols so riled up.

''I don't care, it doesn't affect me. They're going to pay them anyway,'' says Stacey Field, a hotel worker in Pensacola, Fla.

''It probably does affect me, but I don't know it,'' says Atiya Dangleben, a student from Boston.

Gwen Elerby, a homemaker in Sherman Oaks, Calif., rues shutting down the government to make ''political points.'' ''Clinton is going to end up buckling under on substantive issues so that all these federal employees don't get too hurt at Christmas time,'' she says.

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