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Key Wayward Democrats Taking 2nd Look at Dukakis

Times Political Writer

They were sitting in a restaurant on the Norwalk-Downey border, sipping coffee and having a smoke. Don and John, a truck driver and a tool and dye maker, blue-collar Democrats in their early 60s who voted for President Reagan but now are giving the 1988 Democratic presidential ticket a serious look.

Don Wright, 61, said he had been “pretty neutral” before Sunday’s debate between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis.

“But I think I’ve made up my mind,” said Wright, whose face is lined and leathery after years of squinting into the sun on highways from Norwalk to North Carolina.

“I liked Dukakis pretty well after what I saw,” Wright continued. “For one thing, he talked about kids, and medical and like that. We really need some things. . . . I voted for Reagan, but I’ve had enough of Reagan. You know, the Republicans are always going after that Social Security, and I’m getting nearly old enough to start collecting.”

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Still Undecided

John Mize, 60, is still undecided in the presidential race but said that after the debate, “I started leaning a little bit more toward Dukakis than I had.”

As his callused hands attest, Mize has shaped metal parts for 31 years for a company that makes aircraft landing gears.

“I can’t put my finger on any one thing he (Dukakis) said,” added Mize. “But I liked him talking about helping people who are out of work and older people. That was good.”

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The Norwalk-Downey area is one of several parts of the state that are being watched closely by the two campaigns to see whether the Democratic ticket’s call for change is taking hold among conservative Democrats who supported Reagan in the last two elections.

Other areas with substantial numbers of these potentially crucial swing voters include San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the San Joaquin Valley and Contra Costa and San Mateo counties.

Want More Information

Post-debate interviews with Democratic voters in the Downey and Norwalk communities found Dukakis making a little headway but also found that many of these voters want to know more.

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“I’m leaning Dukakis, I guess,” said Doris Beck of Downey. “But what the debate did was make me want to think about this some more.”

Another Democrat, Shirley Dillwood, said: “I voted for Reagan, but I think I’m voting party this time. Reagan didn’t turn out the way I wanted, and Bush is too much like him.”

But Bush definitely has some support in the same neighborhoods.

Downey resident Delbert Bradford, who works for McDonnell-Douglas’ Carson plant, said he came away from the debate more persuaded than ever that Bush is the better choice.

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“I’m a registered Democrat, voted for Reagan. No way I’m going for Dukakis. Why? Well, the last time I voted for a Democrat was Jimmy Carter in ’76, and I got nothing but problems.”

Bush was also preferred by Gene Brase of Norwalk, who took time out from mowing grass to comment on Sunday’s debate.

‘Should Love the Flag’

“I hadn’t made up my mind,” said Brase, “but the more Dukakis talked about the immigrant thing the more I didn’t like it. I mean, on the pledge to the flag, if an immigrant wants to be a citizen of the United States and says he loves this country, then he should love the flag and be able to salute it.”

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(Brase’s reference was to the controversy over Dukakis’ veto of a Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush has cited the veto frequently in criticizing Dukakis. The Democratic candidate has said he vetoed the bill because he was advised it was unconstitutional, but does not oppose the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Ideological Battlegrounds

“Places like Downey and Norwalk are ideological battlegrounds for the older conservative Democrats,” said California Democratic census expert James Wisely. “Dukakis is going for their minds, he’s saying you haven’t been getting a good deal. Bush, using patriotism, is making an emotional argument.

“I think Dukakis has a good shot with the older Democrats in these places because they are starting to have public policy needs. Now with the younger ones, I’m not so sure. My guess is that’s a tougher sell for Dukakis.”

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