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State of Union is first campaign Clinton must win // SUPPORT

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Four years ago, the people of Pennsylvania's 13th District booted George Bush out of office and opted for Bill Clinton. Two years later, they switched again, tossing out a Democratic congresswoman in favor of a Republican.

Once little more than rolling farmland, the suburban communities of Montgomery County are now paved with the concrete of highways and shopping malls. Predominantly white, middle-class and well-educated, the district's voters tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

So if President Clinton hopes to win a second term, these are the people he must speak to tonight when he gives his fourth State of the Union address.

In a way, his fate may rest with people like Bob and Evelyn O'Neill, 40-year-old parents of four. Not bound by party affiliation, engaged in the issues of the day, the O'Neills are quintessential swing voters in a truly swing district.

Evelyn O'Neill worries about crime and education; her husband wants a budget deal. Evelyn wonders whatever happened to health care reform and how safe are the American soldiers in Bosnia? Bob, a painter, fears too many businesses are leaving the Philadelphia area.

Evelyn O'Neill voted for Clinton in 1992; her husband stuck with President Bush.

"I might give him another chance," says Evelyn O'Neill, as she watches three of her children play hockey Sunday evening. "He's just getting his feet wet and might do some things differently."

Here, at a dedication ceremony for the YMCA's new community room, the O'Neills seem far away from the partisan skirmishing in Washington. Yet the 13th District, which includes Philadelphia's Main Line, named for the railroad service that carries the city's professionals home each night, is at the heart of this year's battle for the presidency.

Other parts of the country may steal the headlines, but the nation's real political clout resides in areas like this one. More than Iowa, home to the first presidential caucuses, or New Hampshire, which holds the first primary in a month, swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania will decide the 1996 election.

It will be a challenge for Clinton. Today, voters in Montgomery County express disappointment that the youthful Democrat full of ideas and energy hasn't accomplished much of what he set out to do.

"I wanted national health care," says Elda Mayew, 68.

"He's too inexperienced for what's going on," says 63-year-old Dino Straface, who recently retired from the Tasty Baking Co.

"He's like every other president," says Ken Gordon, a 34-year-old shoe-store owner from Lafayette Hill. "They come in with a lot of enthusiasm, lots of plans for lots of changes, then they get caught up in the politics of it and don't get anything done."

Still, Clinton may win by default.

"A lot of these Republicans running for president are scary," Gordon continues. "They're guys that can't be trusted. Maybe people are ready to change back to a Democratic Congress."

From the glitzy new mall at King of Prussia to a pancake breakfast at the Lansdale Elks Club, the people of the 13th District are in a decidely wait-and-see mood. From Clinton's opening salvo on national television tonight to the final debates next fall, voters here will be listening and watching skeptically.

"Clinton would have to come around and give us a very quick solution to the budget," says Margaret Cathers, a 54-year-old school teacher from Montgomeryville. "I want that now; Jan. 30 is my deadline. His solution and what (Sen.) Bob Dole agrees to or disagrees to may be my deciding factor."

The budget fracas in Washington is uppermost in voters' minds, although there is little clarity on what should be done. About the only thing everyone agrees is that the entire bunch of politicians have been a disgrace.

"I've got five kids and they remind me of them," says Bob Carrick, a Philadelphia firefighter who lives in Montgomery County. "Even shutting down the government didn't accomplish anything."

As polls have indicated, Clinton has scored points with many senior citizens fighting what they perceive to be a Republican assault on their benefits.

"I can't see them trying to take Medicare away," says Fred Landis, a 76-year-old retired machinist. "I don't have a pension."

He is almost certain he will vote for Clinton.

But the president's pitch to the elderly is not without risks. Take the Daneker and Lowrey families, who with five young children, find the $4.50 Elks breakfast a bargain.

"You can't say Social Security and Medicare will go unscathed," says Joe Daneker. "I realize a lot of constituents are senior citizens, but everybody has to give a little bit."

There is still uneasiness out in the country about Clinton's ethics, his trustworthiness and new questions surrounding first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Hasn't he got moral problems _ cheating on his wife and stuff?" says Linda Maurer, who tours the new mall with her 7-month-old. "I wish Colin Powell were running."

Yet Clinton doesn't draw the visceral reaction Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich provokes.

"He's a legend in his own mind," declares Tom Walsh, a computer specialist from Montgomery County who says he normally votes Republican but is disgusted by Gingrich's running of the Congress.

"When I voted for (Rep.) Jon (Fox) I didn't think I'd have Newt calling the shots," says Irene Blank, who voted for independent Ross Perot in 1992. "Newt's a slimy reptilian."

Although some of their judgments sound a bit harsh, the voters in the 13th are willing to sacrifice. Unlike President Clinton and the Republican leaders, they are not wedded to a tax cut in 1996.

"Most of the people I talk to don't say anything about a tax cut," says Blank.

"If the tax is the same as last year I'll jump at it," says Cathers, her schoolteacher friend. "I really want some improvement for senior citizens and education."

Beginning with the speech tonight, and all that follows, the people of Montgomery County will keep an eye on the doings in Washington. These voters that turned their back on the last president may do it again.