The US Presidential Elections: Rust Belt suburbs tie their future to Democrats

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The Independent Online
IN THIS little patch of suburban America, eight miles south of the Cleveland skyline and the chill grey-blue waters of Lake Erie beyond, it is the time of year when lawns are being mown for the last time before winter, and great orange pumpkins already adorn those tidy porches in anticipation of Hallowe'en.

Behind those porches and far more important to the future of the US, voters are abandoning George Bush. Right now, the state of Ohio could hardly be more important for the floundering occupant of the White House. Without its 21 electoral-college votes, Mr Bush has next to no chance of amassing the 270 votes he needs if he is to gain a second term.

Ohio is a bell-wether. Unfailingly it votes for the national winner, and since 1968 only Jimmy Carter has broken the Republican stranglehold. This year Bill Clinton looks poised to do the same. For proof, look no further than Parma.

These gentle 25 square miles epitomise the changing Rust Belt of which Ohio is the very hinge. As with so many venerable manufacturing centres of the US, crisis came a decade ago to Cleveland: when the oil-producing countries ruled and the steelmills closed, and the great migration from a decaying inner city to the suburbs turned into a stampede. Across the entire swathe of the old industrial north-east, dozens of Parmas sprung up, transforming not only American society but the country's politics as well.

Inviolable oases of the American Dream, the suburbs became strongholds of that famous new breed of voters, 'Reagan Democrats'. In 1988, most of them stuck with Mr Bush. Now, from Ohio to Michigan, from Pennsylvania to Illinois, the prodigal sons are returning home.

'I haven't made up my mind yet,' says a Parma lady who voted Republican in the last three elections, and whose caution extends to a request for anonymity, 'but I like the look of Clinton and it's time for a change.' Parma is full of ethnic voters, many of them from Eastern Europe. Democrats they might be by instinct. Come presidential elections though, and the anti-Communist credentials of successive Republican candidates would carry the day.

No longer. Even history, it seems, has turned against the George Bush on whose watch the Cold War ended - leaving in its wake not so much gratitude as a sense of betrayal that his administration has delivered so little financial support to help the fragments of the former Soviet empire consolidate their freedom.

For Ohians whose roots are closer to home, however, only one thing matters: the economy. Dan Clark is chief aide to a retiring US Congressman, Edward Feighan, a Democrat whose 19th District includes much of Parma.

'This place is the essence of America and, like everywhere else, Parma is basically going to vote for a new economy. It's not quite a done deal yet, but Bill Clinton will be the recipient of those votes. Ohio this time is in our column.'

The Arkansas Governor has played a skilful hand in the state. Oozing caution and moderation, he has reassured its substantial blue-collar vote with the provisos he is attaching to endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and by maintaining a discreet silence over the pro-business parts of his programme. In return the unions have pulled out the stops as they never did for Michael Dukakis in 1988, to draw other 'Reagan Democrats' back into the fold on 3 November.

Mr Clark admires Mr Clinton's touch, but is no dewy-eyed aficionado. 'He still hasn't established a real bond with the electorate, but in this climate Dukakis or almost any Democrat would be winning. George Bush is the same as he was four years ago: what's different is that people then were satisfied with the economy. Now they're voting against it; all the negative advertising and the attacks on Clinton's character miss the point. Even when Bush admits mistakes, that just feeds into the general malaise.'

Thus, in the nutshell of Parma and Ohio's 19th District, is the dynamic of election 1992, and even Republicans agree. The official line, of course, is that, despite polls giving Mr Clinton a lead of up to 15 per cent in Ohio, it is wide open.

'As usual, the Democrats are getting their hopes up again,' claims Robert Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party, 'and these hopes are going to be dashed like they always are.'

If the soul of America lies in its suburbs and their shopping precincts, the message from Parma is bleak. The signs are that Ross Perot's return, once mightily feared by the Democrats, will make no difference. 'Perot's got rocks in his head; he just doesn't know what to do with himself,' said a retired factory worker. 'He had no business getting back in. Round here people are moving towards Clinton.' A hundred yards away, the local branch of the General Cinema chain is conducting its traditional presidential 'straw- vote' of customers buying their soft drinks and popcorn. The sentiments thus far of film-going Parma are: Mr Clinton 48.6 per cent, Mr Bush 35.2 per cent and Mr Perot a surprising 16.2 per cent. Since it began in 1968, the 'straw-vote' hasn't called an election wrong - just like Ohio.