America on Ropes? Scream for Change : Ringside in Tennessee, it's easy to tell who's the good guy. But in the matchup between Bush and Clinton, cheers can quickly turn to boos.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here in Tennessee there are warning signs along roads when local drinking water contains fluoride.

Fair enough. Knowledge can be troubling, but it's good for you.

McMinnville is a community of 15,000 in a county of 33,000 in an area that looks agricultural but is increasingly industrial. On our approach, there were nests of confusing road signs to decipher and raindrops the size of meteorites splattering the windshield, so we are not sure whether this is an unfluoridated community or we just missed the notice. To be safe, we brushed extra carefully before heading out to report on the presidential election from ringside at this evening's presentation of World Championship Wrestling at the Civic Center.

Here is what we found:

- People will dress up for rain and drive 50 miles to scream themselves silly at the spectacle of meaty men in shiny tights throwing each other onto the mat with colossal grunts, all the while pretending to hit, kick, bite and maim one another by way of demonstrating that good guys usually win, if at all costs. These same fans also think the furious baring of fangs in the campaign for the presidency is a good start.

- Not everyone who is for change this election year thinks America will change for the better, but some are for it anyway.

- Hardly anybody is talking about fluoridated water.

According to Daisy Hobbs, who works as a secretary for the Civic Center, McMinnville was settled in the 19th Century by pioneers who went to Oregon, did not like what they found and came back to homestead here. Adventurous people who weren't afraid to admit they made a mistake. Many here now work at a Nissan truck assembly plant or at a new Bridgestone Tire facility.

In the auditorium this evening, four large, half-naked men are running around, in and out of the ring, hurling themselves and each other through the air and screaming. The crowd is screaming back. Maybe they are trying to communicate, or maybe they are just screaming. The event has begun, and it's called a tag-team match.

"I love this. This is my life," says Don West, a 31-year veteran of wrestling promotion who works for Ted Turner's televised WCW. "Why do people like it? Because they can come here and see heroes. Years ago, John Wayne was everybody's hero, fighting with the Indians. People watched him on the movies and TV. Now, these guys are on TV and people can come see their heroes. . . . "

New to this pastime, we are advised to enjoy wrestling for its high camp and for its athleticism. But mostly we are here to talk national politics with people who like a brawl.

"I'll tell you this," says West, "I'm not really into politics. But I'm into this campaign. I love this campaign. Both these guys are good. They got my interest, I'll tell you. I'm paying attention to this one."

At this point, reporter, fan and reader must agree on the underlying absurdity of political interviews conducted with people seeking release from the relentless bindings of rationality. We push on anyway. And thanks to a no-alcohol policy and to the seriousness with which these Americans regard their democracy, none of the 20 people interviewed pretended to smash my face.

"They're just bringing up the issues, and that's what it's all about," says Mark Seymour, who works in marketing for a local machine tool company. "Politics is itself a show. . . ."

This is a natural theme to come to mind on such an evening.

"Isn't everything theater in life? They proved that by Reagan," says housewife Francis Hopkins of Dunlap. "They got to shake the right hands, kiss the right babies and other places. . . ."

Voters like Seymour and Hopkins and Nissan assembly-line manager Michael Solomon of Smyrna and several others are ready with the identical one-word reply when asked the open-ended question: What's on your mind this political year?

"Change."

They have been reading about it, hearing about it, and at this moment, they feel the urge for it.

"I think people are ready for a change, whether it's good or bad," says Seymour.

You mean even if there is a 50-50 chance things would get worse?

"That's right," says retired truck driver George Jones of McMinnville. "He's not come up to par, the President, with what he said he'd do. Most of them I talk to are for change."

So what could save it for Bush?

"Change."

You mean the President could make the case that he's for change?

"Maybe people will change their mind. November is a ways yet. No telling what people will want. Maybe just a little less off them," says Linda Winters, a housewife from Murfreesboro.

In the ring, a little wrestler is throwing a bigger one onto the mat. Everybody screams their approval. Or is it disapproval?

We try to yell out one final question: What about the fluoride? Was this a fight over values? How many millions did it cost? Was this the doing of some angry group? A judge? Do people sleep better?

But the little man is jumping on the bigger man's neck and twisting his leg something awful. From the crowd, the screams rise. The question is lost in all the yelling.

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