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Bush "wake-up call' no shock to local business leaders

Pasco County banker Hjalma Johnson isn't ready yet to take down the picture in his office of him shaking hands with President Bush.

Even after the rebuke the president received at the polls in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, "he's still the leader we need," said Johnson, vice chairman of the First National Bank of the South in Dade City.

Bush won, but unimpressively over Patrick Buchanan, who captured slightly more than 37 percent of the Republican primary vote.

But if there was any question that the 1992 election will turn on what Johnson calls "pocketbook issues," the New Hampshire primary left little doubt.

Johnson said he hopes predictions are right about the economy recovering by mid-year because Bush is the best of the lot for business.

But overall, the president got little sympathy Wednesday from area business people for the comeuppance Buchanan gave him. It wasn't the traditional business response to a Republican president.

"It's his wake-up call," said Bob Basham, president of Outback Steakhouse Inc. in Tampa.

Democrats would seem to have an increased opportunity to win voters after the Bush-Buchanan standoff.

"I know the Republican Party is theoretically the party of business," said Gail Powers, a Dade City businesswoman who owns three fast food restaurants. "But I want to hear what the Democrats are saying."

Powers, who describes herself as a lifelong Republican, said of Buchanan's New Hampshire showing, "I think he ate (Bush's) lunch."

She criticized Bush for breaking his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes.

But the opposition of both Republican candidates to abortion makes the Democrats at least worth considering, she said.

The Democratic winner, Paul Tsongas, has attracted new attention.

"I thought the Tsongas victory was interesting," said William Roberts, managing partner in St. Petersburg of Ernst & Young, an accounting firm.

He cited Tsongas' idea, not in the Democratic mainstream, of a marriage between business and government to help create jobs.

"Tsongas is realistic," said Roberts. "You can't crunch business and then ask why there aren't any blue-collar jobs."

Another issue of concern to some business people is international trade.

Buchanan is viewed as an isolationist in favor of restrictions on imports into the United States.

While Bush is considered more of a free trade advocate, his trip to Japan in January didn't make many fans in international trade circles.

"I'm disappointed at some of the things Bush has done," said Paul Grasser, president of the Japan America Society of Central Florida.

Grasser, who is in the real estate business in Tampa, said the Republicans' free trade opposition and anti-Japan attitude could hurt American business and consumers.

He said trade restrictions end up costing the American consumer because they cut back the selection of goods.

"We pay the price," he said.

And Japan-bashing by political candidates dampens the enthusiasm of Japanese investors in the United States, he said.

"That hurts American business," he said.