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US corporate leaders hitch their wagons to Clinton

WASHINGTON - In a new pointer to the depths of President George Bush's difficulties, his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, is attracting steadily larger support in what has hitherto been an almost impregnable Republican constituency, the leaders of corporate and financial America, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The latest show of strength by the Arkansas Governor came in Chicago on Monday, as more than 100 chief executives, a third of whom claimed to have backed Mr Bush in 1988, said that this time the Democrat was their man.

Mr Clinton's swelling business support is a big reason why, for once, a Democratic candidate is raising money more easily than a Republican. But the underlying reason for the shift of allegiances is even more ominous for the President. As in every other facet of the 1992 campaign, the dismal state of the economy is the key. But whereas ordinary voters are deserting the President in droves because of the immediate impact of the recession, in terms of lost jobs and slimmer paypackets, the chief executive officer (CEO) elite is saying in effect that the whole laissez-faire thrust of the policies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush needs to be overhauled if America's competitiveness is to be restored.

Despite the gathering Clinton bandwagon in the business community, Mr Bush is still, in overall terms, the favoured candidate of industry and finance. But no Democratic candidate for the White House since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has amassed such support. For Mr Clinton, 12 years of pro-business policies in his state, and an assiduous courting of industry leaders throughout his campaign, are paying off.

More subtly, the type of executives Mr Clinton is recruiting to his cause emphasises his message of ideological and generational change on the eve of the 21st century. Nowhere is he more popular than among bosses of companies on the 'cutting edge' of technology.

Last week the heads of around 20 firms in California's Silicon Valley endorsed him. His supporters include the CEOs of Apple, Hewlett- Packard and Xerox, three of the biggest US computer and electronic concerns. From Wall Street to even such Republican redoubts as Orange County, California, many entrepreneurs and bankers are putting aside their traditional views of Democratic candidates as high-taxing, high-spending interventionists, whatever Mr Bush urges daily to the contrary.

'Clinton has convinced me he's a different kind of Democrat,' said Roger Johnson, the chairman of the Orange County-based Western Digital Corporation.

'He understands the depth and complexity of problems but doesn't throw his hands up,' Mr Johnson said. 'I'm afraid my own party thinks the problems will just fix themselves.'

(Photograph omitted)