Magazine article Insight on the News

Western Boots May Stomp All over Clinton's Coattails; Voters West of the Mississippi Aren't Happy with the White House Agenda So Far, and That Could Spell Trouble for First-Term Democratic Congressmen Who Rode the Clinton Tide to Victory in 1992

Magazine article Insight on the News

Western Boots May Stomp All over Clinton's Coattails; Voters West of the Mississippi Aren't Happy with the White House Agenda So Far, and That Could Spell Trouble for First-Term Democratic Congressmen Who Rode the Clinton Tide to Victory in 1992

Article excerpt

Voters west of the Mississippi aren't happy with the White House agenda so for, and that could spell trouble for first-term Democratic congressmen who rode the Clinton tide to victory in 1992.

Two years ago, Western Democrats urged presidential hopeful Bill Clinton to "go west," confident that his moderate campaign theme and outsider image would appeal to Rocky Mountain voters. Now, with midterm elections approaching, Westerners have a new message for President Clinton: "Stay east."

Despite their biggest Western win in three decades in 1992, Democrats are now struggling to break even in congressional races as the president's popularity plummets. Many of the House Democrats who rode in on the strength of Clinton's Western roundup two years ago are now running away from the president's record as they fight for their political lives.

"Polling out here shows the president rated [5 percent to 10 percent] lower than his national rating, and his national rating has gone down," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "The more he's in Washington, the more liberal he looks. Things like gay rights, affirmative action ... are just a hard sell here."

An even tougher sell is the Clinton administration's sweeping attempt to reform public-lands policy, which critics call his War on the West. Proposals to restrict logging, mining and grazing have ignited pockets of rebellion in rural areas from the Cascades to the Pecos River. That rage has tended to focus on Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, an Arizonan who is the prime mover behind the public-lands agenda, but analysts see it spilling over onto the Democratic Party as a whole.

"President Clinton and the national administration are going to play a prominent role in this election because of the War on the West," says Tim Rife, editor of the Montana Political Reporter in Helena. "It's going to tar the whole party. No one here mistakes Babbitt as an independent entity -- he's a creature of his president." Adds Rife, "It's going to be used, and it's going to be effective."

No one expects the West to duplicate the South, where the Democrats are bracing for a political Antietam. "|War on the West' just doesn't have the juice [in the West] that |liberal Bill Clinton' does in the South," says one Democratic Party official.

But in races throughout the West, Republicans are trying to recoup their 1992 losses by hog-tying their opponents to the Clinton administration and its policies. In California's northernmost district, former Republican Rep. Frank Riggs has adopted as his campaign motto "Jobs First" -- a reference to the radical environmental group Earth First -- to zing his proenvironmental foe, Democratic Rep. Dan Hamburg.

In Montana, former Bush Interior Department official Cy Jamison is running his campaign against vulnerable Democratic Rep. Pat Williams as a referendum on what he calls "the Clinton attack on the West," And in Wyoming's Senate race, Democratic Gov. Mike Sullivan is defensive over his status as a bona fide FOB, or friend of Bill.

Ads released this month by Republican Rep. Craig Thomas, Sullivan's opponent, depict Sullivan as a guaranteed vote for the president. "The only way you can cast a vote for Mike Sullivan this year is to -- in effect -- cast a vote for Bill Clinton, and I think Bill Clinton's been a disaster for the country," says Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman and defense secretary under Bush, in the ad.

Democrats are responding by trying to distance themselves from the administration. …

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