- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

NORRISTOWN, Pa. Presidential candidates may wonder how important it is to win Montgomery County just outside Philadelphia. Does a victory in that affluent county mean winning Pennsylvania? And does taking Pennsylvania mean winning the White House?

Of course the election is not that simple, but it is a fact that presidential elections in this historically Republican district have become something of a bellwether. Pennsylvania's 13th District which includes most of Montgomery County has picked the last five winners, and the state has picked seven in a row.

It is also a fact that almost anyone who knows anything about politics in this wealthy, old-school Philadelphia suburb says the county is up for grabs.

"I think it is going to be a close race," Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, Pennsylvania Democrat, said in a telephone interview from the Democratic National Convention last week in Los Angeles. "Bill Clinton won the district twice, and there is every reason to believe that Al Gore can do it as well."

"It is going to be close," agrees Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who is running against Mr. Hoeffel. "But I think we have the best chance we have ever had" of retaking the district, Mr. Greenleaf said at a campaign stop at the Ardmore train station on Philadelphia's Main Line.

Both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore already have made campaign appearances here and are likely to be back.

In July, before either party's convention, polls showed Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in a statistical dead heat in Pennsylvania.

John Gorman, president of the independent polling firm Opinion Dynamics, says part of the reason for the split is voter indifference, particularly as Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are both running for the "middle and [and trying to] blur the distinctions."

While that centrism might turn off more extreme districts, it is a message that resonates in Montgomery County.

Fighting over whether to have "a $327 billion tax cut or a $328 billion tax cut … is going to leave a lot of people close to the edge for a long time," Mr. Gorman said, speaking of the presidential race generally.

Until 10 years ago, Montgomery County was safely Republican, a keystone to the political machine that once ran Pennsylvania. In 1984, three out of five voters backed President Reagan and in 1988 George Bush won the state by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent.

Even today, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-2.

But Democrats and Republicans agree that as the national GOP became more conservative, the pro-choice, environmentally concerned, Roosevelt Republican voters of Montgomery County began breaking ranks.

They still tend to vote Republican for local offices but voted to switch the party of their representative in Congress three times in the last decade, while still backing Mr. Clinton twice.

"Quite frankly, the [Republican national] party scared the voters of Montgomery County," Mr. Greenleaf said.

"They had a hard time getting beyond the fiery rhetoric," agreed Ken Davis, a Republican Lower Merion Township commissioner.

The Republican party's "veer to the right" began under President Reagan, Mr. Hoeffel said, but while "[Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich] had all the conservative fire, [he had] none of the amiability of Ronald Reagan."

As a result, Mr. Hoeffel said, county voters have become "willing to split the ticket all over the place."

Mr. Greenleaf said the Republican National Convention left Republicans energized, and coupled with Congress' effort to tone down its rhetoric, "I think this is going to be a Republican year."

Robert Lowey, 23, of working-class Bridgeport, says he plans to vote a straight Republican ticket.

"There is nothing wrong with Gore, I just kind of don't like him and what happened with Clinton," said Mr. Lowey, a county employee whose grandparents pushed him as a youngster to be politically active and, more importantly to them, to vote Republican.

Fran Markey, 85, a retired machinist and registered Republican, said he voted for Mr. Clinton in 1992 and for Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, in the 1996 presidential election. He said he will vote for Mr. Bush in November.

Pat, a 41-year-old housewife from Ardmore who asked that her last name not be used, said she voted for Mr. Hoeffel in 1998, but will vote for Mr. Greenleaf and Mr. Bush this fall. She said Mr. Clinton's scandals played some role in her decision, but mostly, "I am just looking for a change."

But Mr. Hoeffel says Mr. Bush has the "tall order" of proving that the country will do better under his leadership than it has under the Clinton-Gore administration.

Donald Person, 76, a retired insurance agent and Republican from Ardmore, says he intends to vote for Mr. Gore.

"If it isn't broken, don't fix it," he said, referring to his take on the last eight years. He also said he is concerned about Mr. Bush's record in Texas on education and the environment.

Arnold, a 77-year-old physician from affluent Lower Merion Township and a Republican who asked that his last name be withheld, says he would benefit from the tax cuts proposed by Mr. Bush, but that the country has higher priorities.

April Gillespie, 33, said she wants to remain open-minded, but is leaning toward voting for Mr. Gore.

Mrs. Gillespie, a Democrat from Narberth, says Mr. Bush's efforts to explain his vision for America has "made a nice TV show, but it doesn't translate into action."

Lisa White, 36, of Pottstown said there is little Mr. Bush can do to convince her he is concerned about average Americans.

As for the vice-presidential candidates, Democrats concede that former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney has added a statesman's qualifications to Mr. Bush's campaign. But they insist that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman will sway far more voters to the Democratic ticket.

"Lieberman is a big deal to this ticket in that district," said David Dougherty, a Democratic pollster with the Global Strategy Group.

In a district where 18 percent of voters are Jewish, according to Democratic statistics, the choice has invigorated Democrats, they say.

More importantly, said Mr. Dougherty, who has handled several campaigns in the county, Mr. Lieberman is moral without being "holier than thou," charismatic without being slick, and not so liberal as to scare voters back into the Republican fold.

Abe Moliken, 81, a Jewish Democrat, said he is "glad something like this is finally happening." But, the Collingdale resident said, "there are a lot of Jewish people who are Republicans, and I don't think they are going to change their [vote]."

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