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Democrats See Rural Problems as Key Symbols : Dukakis, Stumping in Texas, Stresses Talk of ‘Swiss Cheese Economy’

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Times Staff Writer

Just off Main Street, a few miles from the final resting place of Lyndon B. Johnson, the bare shelves of the Super-M market here show more clearly than any poll why Democrats believe that in 1988 they can recapture this crucial state.

In an earlier day, Johnson would send his maid down from the ranch to the Super-M for groceries, and for more than three decades, the store has served the 900 or so people who live in this small town in the midst of the Texas Hill Country.

Three weeks from now, it will be gone.

“I guess the economy just killed us,” said Barbara, who has owned the store with her husband since they and their two children moved here from San Antonio eight years ago.

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Fear Worsening Business

Business has been bad, and “we’re afraid it’s going to get worse, not better,” she said. So next month, maybe sooner, if the dwindling inventory runs out, the store will close.

Barbara’s husband will give up being an independent businessman and go work for the Circle-K convenience store on the highway outside town. Barbara will clear out the cash register, lock the doors for the final time and take down the Pepsi sign out front that already is showing signs of rust.

“It’s been a sad ordeal for us,” Barbara said, asking that her last name not be put in a newspaper.

“It’s not just Johnson City, it’s all the surrounding towns.”

To many in George Bush’s home state, his convention-night boast that Republicans have got the economy “back on its feet, stronger than ever” rings hollow.

While there are some signs that the Texas economy has begun to recover from the collapse of oil prices, personal income in the state remains lower than it was eight years ago.

Ronald Reagan won this state and its 29 electoral votes four years ago by 1.5 million votes.

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Dukakis at Rally

Today, however, many of those who voted for him “are waking up today asking why they don’t have a job,” said Tom Cosgrove, statewide campaign director for Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, who visited the late President Johnson’s widow and spoke at a rally here Saturday.

Ever since Dukakis named Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, strategists for both parties have agreed that the state will be a key battleground for the fall election. Bush will almost certainly have to win here if he is to keep the White House in Republican hands.

Those concerns, however, were far from Barbara’s mind as the Dukakis motorcade came down Highway 356 from the LBJ Ranch. As a shop owner dependent on customers’ good will, she learned long ago never to discuss politics in public, she said.

Symptomatic of Decline

And, in any case, the closing of the Super-M is a small event, one that will make no noticeable ripple in the economic statistics of the state or the nation, or even of Blanco County. It is, however, an event symptomatic of a steady, slow decline of rural America.

The decline directly affects only a minority of voters, for the vast majority of Americans live in cities and their spreading suburbs, not in rural towns.

But small-town America retains a strong hold on the American imagination, and it therefore remains a powerful symbol. It is a symbol of places like the Super-M, a store where children who walk in to buy a soda are greeted by name and where the elderly residents of a nearby housing project can call to have their groceries delivered.

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And it is precisely that symbolism that has brought Dukakis campaigning through small towns in places like Arkansas, Missouri and central Texas in the past week.

No Solutions to Offer

Dukakis and his advisers do not expect to win the national election in rural areas. The population is far too small, and much of it is solidly Republican. Nor do they have any new specific proposals to offer for reversing a rural decline that has varied only in strength, not in direction, for decades.

What they do hope is that by talking about a “Swiss cheese economy” and by focusing attention on rural problems, they will be able to reinforce a concern that polls show to be widespread: that the apparent prosperity of the Reagan years is a bubble that could easily burst.

“People intuitively know that we are slipping,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a former rival for the Democratic nomination who accompanied Dukakis Friday on a whistle-stop tour through Missouri and Arkansas.

“When people get down to the last few days (before the election), they’re going to say, ‘Do I want to stay on the horse I’m on, or do I want a different horse?’ ” Gephardt said.

“If Bush can’t convince people they want to stay on the same horse, he’s going to lose.”

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