Tsongas' Toughest Foe in the Midwest: Demographics : Democrats: Working-class vote eludes candidate. Polls show Michigan, Illinois leaning toward Clinton.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Nick Sage, a community college student who works in a restaurant here, likes a lot of what Paul E. Tsongas has to say.

But he just can't picture the slight and soft-spoken former Massachusetts senator actually sitting in the Oval Office. So he's planning to vote for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in Tuesday's Michigan primary.

"Tsongas has some good ideas," Sage said as he worked through a slice-and-a-Coke lunch at a local pizza parlor. "But if you really think about someone running the country, he doesn't have the forcefulness. Clinton seems very energetic to me."

As the Democrats gird for Tuesday's potentially decisive showdowns here and in Illinois, the gravest threat to Tsongas' candidacy remains his inability to attract voters like Sage: working-class and blue-collar whites.

"We have to do better with those voters than we have in some other states," acknowledges Gerry Austin, a senior adviser to the Tsongas campaign.

Stark numbers underscore that conclusion. So far, Tsongas has depended primarily on the votes of people who know the difference between Perrier and Pellegrino: white, college-educated professionals earning more than $40,000 a year. By contrast, Clinton has dominated Tsongas--and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.--among blacks and working-class whites, particularly those without a college degree.

As in the Southern states that voted last Tuesday, such voters of moderate means and education traditionally predominate in these gritty, industrial states. That means that while these Midwestern contests geographically represent "neutral turf," as Tsongas aides have argued, demographically they favor Clinton.

In New Hampshire and Maryland, sites of Tsongas' most important victories this year, college-educated voters made up roughly half the electorate; but in the 1988 Illinois presidential primary, voters with college degrees cast only 38% of the ballots, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. Although exit polls from 1988 are not available for Michigan because the state held a caucus that year, private surveys suggest that college-educated voters may constitute even somewhat less of the vote here next week.

Thus, many Democratic analysts believe that if Tsongas cannot attract more voters who work with their hands, he may soon be looking for another line of work himself. "If his appeal stays with the same demographic groups as it has been for the first months of the campaign, he loses," insists Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

New polls released Friday reinforce the point. Surveys by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Corp. show Clinton opening substantial leads in Illinois and Michigan, largely on the strength of votes from blacks and whites without a college degree. In Michigan, Clinton led Tsongas by a 48-22 margin, with Brown trailing at 11% and 19% undecided, Mason-Dixon found. In Illinois, the Mason-Dixon poll found Clinton leading Tsongas by a similar 46% to 25%, with Brown at 14% and 15% undecided.

Another poll released Friday by Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research showed Clinton with 34%, Tsongas with 19% and Brown with 10%, with 37% undecided. But that poll measured voter preferences from last Sunday through Thursday, while the Mason-Dixon survey covered only Wednesday and Thursday--the period after Clinton's strong showing on Super Tuesday.

That same general leaning toward Clinton also was apparent in interviews with potential primary voters this week in Macomb County--a virtually all-white, largely blue-collar suburb northeast of Detroit. Macomb is renowned as a breeding ground for so-called Reagan Democrats: middle-class whites who grew up in homes with a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the mantle but who in the 1980s became unhappy with taxes and liberal programs--such as affirmative action--that they perceived as favoring blacks and defected to the GOP. If Tsongas is to peel away blue-collar voters from Clinton, he will have to do it in places like this.

Above all, conversations in Macomb County suggest that none of the Democratic candidates fits perfectly with these voters. As opponents of protectionism who back the negotiation of a free trade agreement with Mexico, Tsongas and Clinton are both at odds with overwhelming sentiment among Democrats in this import-scarred state. Alone among the contenders, Brown opposes the "fast-track" negotiations for a free trade agreement with Mexico, but his eccentric reputation limits his appeal.

Like many interviewed here, Gregg Velez, an electrical contractor from Mt. Clemens, says he does not understand why the Democrats cannot find a candidate more appealing to people like himself, who voted for President Bush four years ago but would like to switch now.

"I'm ashamed they can't come up with somebody who could be a little more competitive than what they have," he says.

But within that framework of broad skepticism, these conversations suggest that Clinton has a substantial--if thinly-rooted--advantage among these voters. Some see their own ideological profile reflected in Clinton's carefully calibrated message--which balances economic populism with such culturally conservative expressions as calls for greater "personal responsibility" by the recipients of government aid.

Dan Burich of East Detroit, who works at a supermarket, likes Clinton because of his support for a middle-class tax cut, which Tsongas rejects, and his backing of the death penalty, which Tsongas opposes in most instances. "The way people are getting away with stuff," Burich says, "we need the death penalty."

Marsha Miller, a homemaker from Warren, likes Clinton's insistence that welfare recipients, after receiving education and training, be required to take public service jobs after two years on the rolls.

To Harold Schollard, a retired Chrysler Corp. electrician who lives in Frazier, Clinton "has shown he can overcome a lot of adversity" by battling through allegations of marital infidelity and draft-dodging to re-emerge as the front-runner.

Still, those allegations continue to trouble others. "Clinton, I just couldn't handle," says William Thomas, a teacher from New Boston. "When he speaks, I don't believe he's telling the truth."

Others are uncertain about aspects of Clinton's call to rethink traditional liberalism. David Fish, a mental health worker from Roseville, was planning to vote for Clinton until the Arkansas governor recently praised workers at a General Motors plant in Texas for making concessions that allowed it to remain open. Instead of closing the plant in Texas, GM announced plans to shut a facility in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Since arriving in Michigan this week, Clinton has been furiously backpedaling from his remarks, insisting the United Auto Workers union has already made enough concessions and questioning whether "GM has made appropriate management sacrifices." But Fish believes Clinton's original statement betrayed a bottom-line preference for management. "I figured this SOB is a wolf in sheep's clothing," he says.

These doubts leave an opening in the Democratic contest here, but Tsongas does not yet appear capable of moving through it. That is partly because of his message, analysts say. In a state where many working-class voters feel over-taxed, few intuitively embrace Tsongas' argument that he deserves support precisely because he rejects Clinton's call for reducing taxes on middle-income earners.

"I think Tsongas is dead meat," says Leo Lalonde, the Macomb County Democratic chairman. "The middle-class is angry about taxes, and when somebody says they will give them a break, they will listen." Nor does Tsongas score many points with these voters by declaring that "on social issues (I am) the most liberal person in this race," as he did in an interview with the Detroit Free Press on Friday.

But, judging from conversations in Macomb, relatively few voters yet know the particulars of Tsongas' program. By far his greater problem is a widespread sense that he simply lacks the stature for the job.

"Tsongas is too wishy-washy," says Fish. "He's always whining."

Others seem uncertain Tsongas is strong enough to push through his program--a perception subtly interwoven with concerns about whether he has fully recovered from his struggle with cancer.

"To tell you the truth, I don't think Tsongas is going to be around long," says Mike Hammond, a retired supermarket manager from Mt. Clemens. "He has some good ideas, but I don't think he has enough oomph to get them through."

Another man from Sterling Heights, who declined to give his name, took a similarly dim view: "He kind of lisps a little when he talks," he said of Tsongas. "He doesn't have the appeal a President should have. Clinton is sharp. Maybe that shouldn't interfere with your decision, but a lot of people look at it."

In Michigan, at least, the wild card in the battle for the allegiance of blue-collar voters is Brown. In states such as Colorado and Florida, Brown primarily drew votes from Tsongas, attracting college-educated whites concerned about the environment.

In Michigan, Brown has aimed at Clinton's blue-collar constituency, with some signs of success. Over the past week, Brown has won endorsements from several unions--including the Michigan Teamsters and the auto workers local in Ypsilanti. Unhappy with both Clinton and Tsongas, these union officials hope that strong showings by Brown could create a deadlocked convention that would turn to a candidate not in the race.

That argument may be too convoluted to sway many rank-and-file voters, but some are drawn to Brown's unabashed identification with the union movement.

"Brown comes right out and says he loves labor and he's with us," said Tony Dinoto, a firefighter from Warren.

Stanley B. Greenberg, Clinton's pollster, acknowledges that Brown could also make further inroads by stressing his opposition to the proposed free trade agreement; Brown is running a television ad in Michigan devoted to the issue.

But to reach beyond labor's angriest elements into the quiet streets of Warren and Roseville, Brown will have to vault a cultural chasm: For many here, he is still a tofu politician in a steak-and-potatoes state. "I've always perceived him as being off the deep end a little bit--on the weird side," says Hammond. "I mean, he takes off on these junkets to India."

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