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Voters see Clinton v. Trump as a Hobson’s choice

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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

GOUVERNEUR, N.Y.

The two Amish couples walking along Main Street of Gouverneur, a northern New York village notable as the birthplace of the founder of Life Savers candy, looked puzzled when asked for their thoughts on the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

"We don't involve ourselves in that," one man replied politely.

It's a year when plenty of others are wishing they were Amish, at least when it comes to the presidential campaign. I don't think I've ever seen an election when voters were so discouraged about the two main candidates.

In interviews in northern and western New York and Pennsylvania, people grimaced or groaned or frowned when asked about the election.

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Clinton represented New York in the Senate, but in the Republican North Country, she doesn't get much credit for efforts she made to help the rural New York economy. Trump is a well-known Manhattanite, but his bombastic ways clearly gave low-key rural residents pause.

Many described the choice they face as the lesser of two evils, as a vote that would be driven by the candidate they dislike the most rather than the one they are enthusiastic about supporting.

But several other undercurrents also became obvious: Although the various investigations of Clinton, from the House Republican's politically driven two-year probe of Benghazi to the FBI's sober and serious examination of Clinton's e-mail practices, have turned up nothing serious, Clinton's reputation has nevertheless suffered badly as a result. Some voters felt that Clinton would simply be as continuation of the Obama administration, and said it was time for something new, for someone who would shake things up.

Others, however, worried that the bumptious Trump would embarrass this country on the international stage. And that his round-them-up-and-send-them-back stand on illegal immigration is mean-spirited and unworkable.

Now, conversations with voters in a several different towns aren't, and shouldn't be taken as, either predictive or representative of the country as a whole.

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Yet those sentiments do show the challenges each candidate faces.

Trust Busters

One surprise for me was that though neither investigation revealed real wrongdoing by Clinton, few voters were willing to accept those results as vindicating Clinton. Instead, the strong feeling was that where there was smoke, there was fire.

Sometimes the twin clouds of controversy had even turned one-time supporters against her. Bonnie Barnett, a Republican who was working the gate at the Jefferson County Fair in Watertown, said she had previously liked Clinton enough to write her name in when voting in the GOP primary. But now she's supporting Trump.

"She has been in so much trouble," Barnett said.

When I pointed out that, despite the many headlines the controversies had created, neither of the recent probes had resulted in anything beyond an assessment that she had been careless with her e-mails, Barnett was undeterred.

"I still feel there is something there," she said, alluding darkly to "what she had been into — the lying and the cheating."

Lisa Porter, 53, a farmer from Watertown, said she disliked Trump, but didn't have any confidence in the trustworthiness of Clinton, whom, she said, seems to feel that "the rules apply to everybody else, but not to me."

So how would she vote: Well, not for Clinton, she said.

Then for Trump? "Maybe."

Another women, unwilling to give her name because of her job with the military, said a sign she'd seen out near Fort Drum, the nearby Army reservation, summed Clinton up perfectly: "Liar, Liar, pantsuit on fire."

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Orange is the new red

In my walk around the fair, the strongest support for Clinton came from three middle-aged women, two of them African American, staffing a Seventh-day Adventist tent. They felt she was competent and capable, but the bigger reason for backing her was that they were repulsed by Trump. One worried he would start a war.

Among the few men I talked to who were open to Clinton was Rob Durant, 54, a farmer from Theresa, one of those who described her as "the lesser of two evils."

"I think the world opinion of the US would fare much better under Hillary than under Trump," he said.

Worries about having Trump represent the United States internationally is the reason that Fred Scozzafava, a Boston University-educated unaffiliated voter who works in the family auto parts store in Gouverneur, would go with Clinton.

"She'd be more respectable on the world stage," he opined. That said, he's considering casting a vote for the Libertarian Party ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld.

His father, Bill, a Republican who at 90 still reports to work daily at the store, said he goes back and forth between the two.

"I'm so discouraged by what we have to vote for," he said. Although Trump's incendiary comments on illegal immigration are the kind of thing "some people like to hear once in a while," as policy, his ideas make little sense, the senior Scozzafava said.

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Clinton, contrariwise, "is much more sophisticated in the way she talks, but I don't like $500,000 to give a speech." (After leaving her post as secretary of state, Clinton earned a total of $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, and commanded fees of several hundred thousand dollars for other addresses.)

Corporate dollars, anti-establishment sense

For some, those speaking fees have helped indelibly mark her as part of the political establishment and the status quo, something I heard time and again. And that's a bad thing for those in economically struggling areas like the stretch from northern New York to Erie, Penn.

In Erie, John Napoli, a Democrat who works for General Electric, said he had twice voted for Bill Clinton and had backed Barack Obama in 2008, though not in 2012. But this time around, the Pennsylvania Democrat said he was with Trump.

"It is time for a change, and she would just be more of the same," Napoli said.

To be sure, Clinton did have some unambivalent supporters. One was nurse practitioner Katherine Richey, a Syracuse transplant to Gouverneur.

"I have had fond feelings for her for many years," said Richey, who said she liked Clinton's thoughtful plans on health care and disliked the intemperate tone Trump often takes.

Now, the view here is that voters' current views sell Clinton short.

Republicans have pursued the Benghazi matter in a way that wasn't about a disinterested probe based on understanding what went wrong so it won't happen again, but rather about fishing for anything they could use to scuff Clinton up.

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As to her use of a private e-mail server, careless corner-cutting it may well be, but it isn't something that counts as a fundamental mark against her character.

The idea that where there's smoke there's fire isn't apt here, for this reason: Most of the so-called smoke comes from Republican- and Fox News-driven headlines hinting darkly at wrongdoing that wasn't and isn't there.

Is Clinton part of the Democratic establishment? Of course. Was her post-secretary of state money-grubbing off-putting? No doubt.

But she's also an exceedingly bright student of public policy, one who has come up with a series of smart, relatively affordable progressive plans.

Measured by conventional standards, Clinton is far more honest and accurate than Trump, whose statements are rife with misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Further, his "proposals" range from unworkable to prejudicial to shameful.

Still, character and honesty, which should be areas of advantage for Clinton, currently aren't. And that's a deadweight drag on her candidacy.

She needs to address that more effectively than she has. To date, the strategy seems to have been to wait for the investigations to end and then try to change the subject. She may need to do more, even if that requires reiterating her previous apology for using a private server and promising to do better. That done, her surrogates would have an easier time burnishing her reputation.

Just as Republicans have done with her, Clinton and her campaign have been hoping to disqualify Trump on character issues. Of course, if voters also don't trust you, that's hard to do.

Changing the subject

There is, however, an alternative course, which is harder but ultimately likely to be more productive: Enlighten the electorate about the consequences of Trump's plans.

That's where Clinton has a clear advantage. She knows what she's talking about. He doesn't. Her proposals are largely realistic. His aren't. She has offered reasonable ideas about how to pay for her proposals. His tax cuts would dramatically expand the public debt this nation is foisting on the next generation. As for how he'd pay for them? There's little beyond "trust me."

But voters I talked to don't know how preposterous Trump's proposals truly are. Which is why some are inclined to believe that he, as a businessman, will be able to do what he says.

Take, for example, Alan Garrand, a late-60s semi-retiree having lunch at Jumbo's Diner in Gouverneur. He was exercised about the new dollars Clinton wants to spend. But when I mentioned that fiscal experts said that Trump's tax-cutting plans would blow a far bigger hole in the federal budget, Garrand was inclined to give him a pass.

"I believe he has a plan," he said.

Nor do they yet know what Clinton hopes to do, and how that will help their families.

Until this campaign becomes a compare-and-contrast affair, this election will continue to be a lesser-of-two evils choice. And elections like that are hard for anyone but the haters to get excited about.

Of course, even concerted efforts at voter education and engagement probably won't work for everyone.

Like, say, the former farmer and milk-truck driver I talked to in the Price Chopper supermarket parking lot in Gouverneur. He mulled my Trump or Clinton question for a moment before allowing that it has been a crazy campaign so far.

Trump, he said, needs to think more about what comes out of his mouth. But though Clinton seems more knowledgeable, he worried that she'd find it tough going with sexist male leaders of other countries.

So who would he vote for, I asked?

"I don't vote," he said.

Never?

"I did once," he told me, "back when I was about 25."

And how old is he now?

"Seventy-five."


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.