- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

EASTON, Pa. — Voters in this perennial swing district enjoy what President Bush did for their wallets this summer, but the sluggish economy tempers their view of his overall performance.
In recent interviews in the state's 15th Congressional District, many voters said Mr. Bush did a satisfactory albeit low-key job during his first seven months in office. But it's also clear they will hold him, and the Republican Party, responsible if the lackluster economy continues.
"People are really worried about the stock market," said John Morganelli, a conservative Democrat in his third term as Northampton County district attorney. "Everyone's talking about their 401(k) plans. Everyone has lost money. You're starting to hear a lot of people say, 'If Bush doesn't straighten this out by the 2002 elections, a lot of Democrats will be going to Congress.'"
In the short term, the rebates of $300 for single taxpayers and $600 for couples have earned Mr. Bush credit with voters for following through on his campaign pledge to cut federal income taxes.
"I liked his tax rebate very much," said William Kober of Fogelsville, Pa., a retired restaurant owner who voted for Mr. Bush. "I'm going to blow mine. I think we're going to be in for a good year next year."
Others are withholding judgment on the president, waiting for action on items such as prescription drugs.
"He needs to get our medication [costs] down," said Kathryn Williamson, 75, of Allentown, who voted for Democrat Al Gore in November. "Every time I turn around, it goes up again."
This two-county region of eastern Pennsylvania called Lehigh Valley, about an hour's drive north of Philadelphia, is exactly the kind of place where Mr. Bush needs to expand his support. Mr. Gore won Pennsylvania by about 200,000 votes; in the 15th district, Lehigh and Northampton counties gave Mr. Gore a 5,000-vote edge. Mr. Bush made two campaign stops last fall in Lehigh Valley, which is likely to gain more Republican voters when the state legislature completes redistricting.
Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, has won the valley twice, but so did President Clinton. The district's current congressman is a conservative Republican, Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, who advocated deeper tax cuts than the $1.3 trillion approved by Congress.
Even some local Republicans say the tax cuts, while certainly welcomed, have not proved wildly popular.
The tax cuts "didn't turn people on," said Ron Angle, a Republican on the Northampton County Council and host of a weekly talk radio show on a station that also carries conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. He blames an inherent mistrust of government.
"People are so disgusted and disenchanted with government in general," Mr. Angle said. "People's view of government is very callous."
Callers to the local radio show generally support Mr. Bush's policies, Mr. Angle said. But so far, the president has not generated much personal appeal, especially compared with his spotlight-loving predecessor.
"A small percentage are unhappy [with Mr. Bush], but they don't have exact reasons," Mr. Angle said. "He's not doing an outstanding job, but they're satisfied. On a scale of one to 10, radio-wise, he's a 7.5. I don't think he's the flash that Bill Clinton was. Even the people who didn't like him admitted that Bill Clinton had a flash and a presence.
"I don't think George Bush is a guy who has flash and presence," Mr. Angle said. "He just is what he is, and I don't think he tries to fake it. He's not flamboyant. But I don't see anybody giving him bad marks."
"Clearly President Bush doesn't have the same style, and people are very grateful for that," Mr. Toomey said of the comparison. "People sense the breath of fresh air all the way up here in the valley."
Mr. Kober, the retired restaurant owner, gives Mr. Bush credit for living up to campaign promises to enact education reform and create a national energy policy.
"Energy is paramount," Mr. Kober said. "The whole Alaskan drilling [proposal] is a good idea. We need that energy. It's bad enough that my generation was dependent on OPEC."
The House this summer approved Mr. Bush's plan to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration; the Senate will take up the matter this fall.
And those who paid attention to Mr. Bush's decision to allow some federal funding of limited embryonic stem-cell research generally approve.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Philip Lauer, a lawyer who describes himself as a liberal Republican. "It wasn't a slam of the door, which I would have expected to satisfy his conservative constituency. I think that's brave."
Mr. Lauer, who said he opposes most of the administration's policies and does not think Mr. Bush was qualified to become president, nevertheless observed that the president "does seem to have a wonderful ability to somehow find consensus."
Mr. Morganelli, the prosecutor, said he wishes Mr. Bush would ease up on his self-deprecating humor.
"I go around the state, and some of my Republican friends are concerned that Bush is — not that he's lackluster, but that he doesn't project confidence as much as people are expecting from a president," Mr. Morganelli said. "He does make fun of himself sometimes, and I think that hurts him. It just reinforces an image which he needs to get rid of."


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