US Presidential Elections: Riding the trail to win the West: Rupert Cornwell, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, reports that a Democratic victory in cowboy country could transform national politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN HIS trademark beige Stetson hat, silver-buckled belt and polished black cowboy boots, he is not everyone's idea of what the Democratic Governor of a US state ought to look like. But if Bill Clinton is elected to the White House in 10 days' time, Mike Sullivan's hour at last may have come.

This week, the Clinton bandwagon rolled through Mr Sullivan's home state of Wyoming on a three-day, 4,500-mile progress through America's frontier lands. The 'Winning the West' tour has several purposes: among them to carry the battle to what should have been the Bush heartland and fend off a potentially dangerous revival by Ross Perot.

Most important though, it is a showcase for the new Democratic party the Arkansas Governor claims to lead. Seven Democratic governors are travelling with him, all men like Mr Sullivan who run states which in presidential politics have been unswervingly Republican since 1968. Where they have succeeded locally, Mr Clinton is saying, he can succeed nationally.

Wyoming, the least populous of US states, is a perfect test-ground for the theory. Come election time, this stunningly beautiful expanse of high plains and mountains, where only 450,000 people live in an area the size of Britain and Ireland, normally counts for nothing. No Democratic national candidate has wasted campaign energy here for two decades. Ronald Reagan carried the state with 71 per cent of the vote in 1984, and four years ago George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by 61 per cent to 38 per cent. No such landslide is on the cards now.

In 1992, the Cowboy State is a cameo of a president's problems. 'George Bush is trapped here,' explains Wyoming's second-ranking official, the Secretary of State, Kathy Karpen. 'Conservative Republicans here can't forgive him for abandoning his 'No New Taxes' pledge, while moderates hate the party's hardline views on abortion and social issues. This isn't just a symbolic trip, Clinton has a real chance here.'

And if he brings it off, the feat would be akin to Labour carrying Guildford. The lessons will resonate through national politics. Not only would the Arkansas Governor have a mandate to govern stretching far beyond the traditional Democratic coalitions of the past. Victory would vindicate his argument, repeated at every stop, that the party has changed. And thus back to Mike Sullivan.

Fiscally responsible yet socially aware, Mr Sullivan is the living emblem of a Democratic party which has cut loose from old East and West Coast liberal orthodoxies to prosper even in the forbidding territory of the West. Both Wyoming and other states Mr Clinton is barnstorming - New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Nevada - all return more than their share of Democratic governors, senators and congressmen.

The explanation is simple: deliver what the people want, and in an election where domestic issues are paramount, the point is not lost on the man from Arkansas. 'I live in another small state, I know the people and I'm close to them,' he told a boisterous audience in the hangar at Cheyenne airport, where the local high school band welcomed him with a thunderous rendition of Frankie Laine's old hit, Ghost Riders in the Sky.

At stop after stop, Mr Clinton defines his new Democratic world 'where government is a partner but doesn't run things, and stays out of people's lives'.

The real problem out here is less Mr Bush than Ross Perot. Before he pulled out of the race in July, the Texan was running strongest of all in the West. Now his robust showing in the debates, and a huge television advertising campaign, are recapturing lost ground. Wyoming and Montana are toss-ups, and in Colorado, Mr Clinton's lead has been cut to single digits. 'Bush is not gaining, but Perot's going up again, every new vote he's getting comes off Clinton,' warns Roy Romer of Colorado, one of the seven Western governors on the tour.

Seen from the West, the stakes are huge. For years the West has felt that 'far-away Washington', run by laissez-faire Republicans more interested in foreign policy than America's domestic plight, was blind to its grievances. But a fellow Democratic Governor, who last year was voted by his 49 peers the most effective of them all, brings fresh hope.

'There has to be a new partnership,' Mr Romer and Mr Sullivan say. 'With Bill Clinton in the White House, there's a chance of redefining the whole relationship between the federal government and the states.' The US system devolves great powers, 'but if we are going to have a new national strategy, the states have to be involved, as major players in areas like education and health-care. Look at California: even a place as big as that is in agony over budget cuts. Clinton would bring a governor's perspective to the job.'