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Midwestern Voters Next in Primary Battle Spotlight

By Glenn Kessler
and Patrick J. Sloyan



The 1992 race for the White House swept into the frigid Midwest Wednesday where it is the as-yet undecided voters in Illinois and Michigan who will push Bill Clinton or Paul Tsongas forward as the Democratic standard-bearer against President Bush.

Declining fortunes for automobile and other heavy industries have produced blue-collar tragedies in the American heartland that have resulted in volatile voter resentment against the 12-year Republican reign in the White House.

"What I think you will be hearing is a really human cry for help," said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of the two state primaries next Tuesday. While officially neutral in the Democratic race, Daley, who has a personal liking for Bush, predicted a voter uprising against Washington.

"People are losing jobs. People are losing homes. Everybody can't work at Wendy's. You can't just blame Congress. Washington is insulated and isolated from this pain. There's going to be a change," Daley said.

The anti-Washington theme has been a staple for both Tsongas and Clinton, who have been neck-and-neck in the latest polls in both states. These voter surveys show a third of the voters in Illinois and Michigan have yet to make up their minds about the Democratic candidates.

The Arkansas governor's Southern sweep on Super Tuesday could produce the momentum for the first victory outside his regional stronghold. "It was just the shot in the arm that we needed," said Thomas Hynes, the Cook County assessor who has lined up a star-studded cast of Chicago party regulars to back Clinton.

But the former Massachusetts senator has gained steadily in both states since his New Hampshire victory Feb. 18 propelled him into the national limelight as the man with the message. "It's his honesty and integrity," said Kitty Kurth, Illinois coordinator for Tsongas. "That's where Clinton has lost support." A Chicago Tribune poll showed Clinton dropped 9 points in Illinois since January, while Tsongas gained 18 percentage points.

"This is one of the first real testing grounds for the candidates," said Gary Corber, Michigan's Democratic Party chairman.

Others are in agreement. Democratic chairman Ron Brown said the sweep of six Southern states by Clinton Tuesday makes "Illinois and Michigan the most important battles of the campaign."

Tsongas hopes to survive for the New York and Pennsylvania primaries next month, and a loss here for Clinton would hurt his campaign as it heads back east.

On the Republican side, Chuck Yob, Republican national committeeman from Michigan, predicted Pat Buchanan would get only 20 percent of the vote. The latest voter survey showed Bush leading with 73 percent.

Adding to the uncertainty of the Democratic contest in Michigan are problems both Clinton and Tsongas have with organized labor. Like most Southern states, Arkansas bans closed union shops. And Tsongas opposes labor's legislation to prohibit hiring of permanent replacement workers during a strike.

One of the old bulls of the Michigan Democratic establishment, Rep. John Dingell, has urged voters to support an uncommitted slate.

But most experts predict a fateful verdict from Illinois and Michigan voters that will have a major impact on the next big primary -- New York on April 7.

The chemistry favors Clinton who had 707.25 delegates after Super Tuesday, leaving Tsongas behind with 349.25. To win the nomination in July at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, 2,145 delegates are needed.

With that kind of lead, Clinton is considered likely to win the support of labor leaders in Detroit and machine politicians in Chicago who can help him win the lion's share of the 295 delegates at stake in both states. "Everybody wants to get on board early with a winner," said one Chicago organizer.

For more than two years, Clinton has sought to pave the way for an Illinois victory by recruiting David Wilhelm, Daley's former campaign manager, and other Chicago veterans for his national campaign staff. Tsongas, however, has only a handful of campaign veterans in both states, where volunteers were organized only days after his New Hampshire victory.

Even so, Tsongas has been able to cut into voter blocs traditionally controlled by the Chicago machine. "I just don't trust that Clinton," said Shirley Weeks, whose south side Chicago neighborhood was toured earlier this year by Clinton.