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AMERICAN VOTERS AREN'T APATHETIC, BUT THEY'RE FED UP WITH RHETORIC

Voters have no deep-down enthusiasm for either presidential candidate. Even partisans at the two conventions were not given to what might be called spontaneous, from-the-heart cheers.

Looking back to 1956, I can say that, barring the Democratic disaster in Chicago in 1968, no conventions have shown less genuine fervor for their candidates than those in New York and Houston this year.Oh, yes, lots of hoopla and cheers filled the halls, on cue. But I've never seen so much inattention among delegates during major speeches.

What, then, is behind these less than spontaneously tumultuous conventions and rather tepid campaigns?

The answer is clear: Voters have lost confidence in governmental processes at every level, but particularly in Washington. Their real enthusiasm is for "something else."

Remember how the polls only shortly before the Democratic convention had shown Ross Perot about even with President Bush and a bit ahead of Gov. Bill Clinton?

Then Perot dropped out, leaving his troops in dismay. Some conceded they now probably would vote for Clinton.

Some - fewer, it seems - said they now would back Bush, but not with any passion. But on the strength of the Perot departure the Clinton candidacy took off, overtaking Bush.

What this suggests is that there are a lot of voters out there who, even if they have told pollsters otherwise, remain undecided. They remain less than committed to either of the candidates.

When Jimmy Carter was president, he talked about a public "malaise." He sensed back then an attitude that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years.

Perot spoke to those discontented millions. They now are left adrift.

Clinton, obviously, is at this point attracting more of what might be called the "alienated American" vote than is Bush.

But many Americans see Clinton's message as quite confusing. Indeed, to many voters Clinton sounds like a "me-too" candidate.

And Bush isn't able to be very convincing as he tries, somehow, to convince people that he, not Clinton, is the authentic architect of change and that all that's kept him from applying needed solutions is that nasty Democrat-controlled Congress.

Up to now, the president has not been able to sell this position. He certainly hasn't been able to fire up the electorate the way Harry Truman once did.

So the mood out there among Americans isn't apathetic, as some observers have said. But they've "had it" with the old political rhetoric and the old political promises.

I contend that their vote is up for grabs - and that where it finally goes will decide the election.