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Clinton's Budget Dance Is Swaying California Swing Voters

IN talk-radio land, the ardent followers of the Republican revolution are urging their leaders not to give in to President Clinton in the battle over the budget. But the conservative voters of California's fog-shrouded Central Valley don't see things quite so clearly.

Like most of the voters interviewed randomly here, Bruce Cooksey holds the Republicans more responsible for the budget crisis. ''They're the ones that are more hard-nosed,'' says Mr. Cooksey. ''Clinton's more for saving the people's tail. [Republicans] care about people who have a lot of money and not the working man.''

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Cooksey's vote is still up for grabs. Like 1 out of every 5 voters here, he went with independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992. But the budget fight has begun to sway this truck driver. ''I think I would vote for Clinton now,'' he says. ''Anybody else would have caved in. I don't like everything about the man, but at least he's taking a stand.''

These are the voters Clinton must win over if he is to be reelected to the White House in 1996. If the response of voters here is any indication, then the budget crisis is helping the president make some considerable headway toward that end.

The budget battle has done two things for the president. It has given him an opportunity to come across as a leader, to shed his image as an indecisive poll-watcher. And it has reawakened class identifications for the conservative, white, working-class voters that make up much of the ''swing'' constituency in American politics now.

California's 11th Congressional District is a good indicator of where those swing votes go. It is an area of rich farmlands, of ranches, fruit orchards, and vineyards, along with the agribusiness center of Stockton. Here in Manteca, as throughout the region, farmland is giving way to developments offering cheap housing to young working-class families fleeing the high costs of the San Francisco Bay area. Strip malls now line the city's Main Street, their parking lots filled with a mix of pickup trucks and compact cars.

While the majority of voters here are still registered Democrats, they tend to vote conservatively, and increasingly so. In 1988, the district chose George Bush over Michael Dukakis. In 1992, Clinton won a bare plurality of 40 percent, with Bush getting 38 percent, and Perot 21 percent. At the same time, the voters elected to Congress Republican Richard Pombo, an archconservative rancher and vocal foe of environmentalists, abortion rights, and gun control.

No cuts close to home

When it comes to federal spending, voters here hold mixed views. Almost without exception people favor the goal of a balanced budget. They strongly support welfare reform. But, like supermarket department manager Michelle Archleta, they draw the line at cuts in entitlement programs that hit closest to home, such as Medicare.

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''I'm all for cutting on welfare - forcing people to go out and get jobs,'' says Ms. Archleta, sipping a soda as she takes a break outside the Pak 'N Serve Foods store. ''But I think we abuse our elderly.''

Perrie Anderson, a registered Republican who works at nearby Tracy Defense Depot, a major military logistics facility, sees a change in attitude toward Clinton. ''More people respect him now because he's sticking up for the working people. Senior citizens, like my Dad, didn't like him before, but they've changed their minds,'' she says. Asked why, she responds that ''he's standing up, and it's something hitting them personally.''

These views are consistent with poll results, both in California and nationally. ''Clinton's position on budget matters is more populist than those the Republicans espouse,'' explains Mark DiCamillo, co-director of California's Field Institute, the state's lead polling organization. ''The public supports balanced budgets, but the public, as always, wants things both ways. What Clinton's doing is saying, 'I want it both ways too.' ''

A leader ... who compromises

What is also noticeable is that the American public holds a similarly contradictory set of desires regarding leadership. ''The American people have an ambivalent, and in the end impractical, posture - they want people to take stands, and in the end produce results,'' says Richard Brody, author of a study of how public opinion toward the presidency is shaped and political science professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

That often clashing mix is evident on the streets of Manteca. Supporters of those advocating an unyielding battle on the budget were hard to find. Most reserved their harshest words for Newt Gingrich, House Speaker and leader of the Republican revolution.

''Gingrich - they need to get rid of him,'' says supermarket manager Archleta, a Republican who voted for Clinton. ''He thinks he's a dictator. You should stand up for things you believe in, but you have to give a little.''

Time and again, these Central Valley voters echoed the theme that a leader has to be willing to compromise, a trait often negatively associated with Clinton. Still, up against an ideological stalwart like Gingrich, Clinton gains ground.

''True believers in any case tend to get negative responses from the public,'' says Mr. DiCamillo. ''The public is fearful of those kinds of leaders. They like a more practical [leader]. The downside is you get labeled as wishy-washy, but [practical leaders] are more acceptable.''

Sen. Bob Dole, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has an image similar to that of Clinton. He is often accused, particularly by his Republican opponents, of waffling and being too ready to compromise. But that seems to win him backing from many here.

''It's a good thing to be a compromiser,'' says Velma, a registered Republican and a retired nurse. ''I'll vote for Dole.... He knows the ropes.''

In a Clinton-Dole contest, it may be difficult to shape a contrast for these voters. ''Dole will have a hard time accusing Clinton of being pragmatic,'' predicts Professor Brody.

That may leave voters like painter James Moreno, a Perot backer in 1992, with nowhere to go. Like many here, he is more disgusted than angry these days. ''I don't even give it a thought,'' he says of the budget fight in Washington. ''They're all wrong.''

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