By 2 to 1, Americans say Gary Hart should not have given up his presidential race, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found. But it also is clear from other things they say that Hart probably made a wise decision in getting out.
Now, in a brand-new contest with every remaining competitor still a long shot, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has emerged with a slim 5-point lead in the wide-open battle for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sixty percent of the people interviewed by the poll said Hart should not have abandoned his candidacy after questions about his character and judgment were renewed by a Miami Herald report that he had spent much of last weekend with an actress-model at his Washington town house. But 31% said he indeed should have quit--and a 31% bloc of voters is significant because most elections are decided by fewer than 20 points.
Based on the responses of those surveyed, it seems evident Hart would have had a difficult time maintaining his front-runner status.
For example, people listed "integrity" as by far the "single most important quality" that a presidential candidate should possess. And they were divided about equally between those who believed Hart's contention that he did nothing "immoral," those who thought he was flat-out "lying" and those who were not sure what the truth was.
Although it could take weeks or even months for a new front-runner to break clearly out of the bunched pack, Dukakis initially has reaped the most benefit from Hart's abrupt withdrawal from the race he long had led, the survey showed.
As an indication of how little-known nationally the remaining candidates are, however, most regions of the country have their own local favorites for the Democratic nomination: the East--Dukakis and non-candidate Mario M. Cuomo, governor of New York; the Midwest--Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the South--Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee.
In the West, Dukakis is the new leader, thus showing some potential for a national constituency.
The nationwide telephone survey of 1,118 adults, supervised by Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis, was begun Thursday night--after it had become widely known that Hart was abandoning his candidacy--and completed Friday night. The margin of error for a survey of this size is 4 percentage points in either direction.
Registered Democrats made up 393 of those interviewed, and the margin of error for that number is 6 points.
If Cuomo had not decided to sit out the contest three months ago, he might well be the front-runner today, the survey showed. The well-known governor's potential strength was illustrated by the fact that 7% of the Democrats interviewed volunteer his name on their own after being asked to choose from a list of candidates that did not include him. This 7% showing was enough to tie Cuomo with Jackson in the runner-up spot. Dukakis led with 12%.
Behind this trio came Gephardt and Gore, each with 6%; Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, 4%; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, 3%; former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, 2%, and non-candidate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, 2%. Kennedy's support, like Cuomo's, was volunteered. Other names also were volunteered, but none by more than 1%.
Perhaps the most significant figure involving the enigmatic contest was the 42% that could be loosely interpreted as undecided, composed of 25% "not sure" and 17% who had not heard enough about any of the participants to have a favorite.
There seemed to be little consolation for President Reagan in Hart's political fall. His job approval rating was down slightly from a March poll, dropping to 49%.
Additionally, among Republican voters, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas has caught up with Vice President George Bush in the race for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. Each was supported by 27% of the Republicans interviewed, followed by New York Rep. Jack Kemp at 12%. In the February poll, Bush led by 13 points.
Black Eye for Media
Both Hart and the news media got a black eye from last weekend's incident.
Of all those surveyed, 39% said the episode had left them with a less favorable impression of Hart, while only 3% had a more favorable impression. But 41% now also had a less favorable impression of the news media and just 9% had a more favorable impression.
In fact, those surveyed were divided about equally over whether "a presidential candidate's extramarital affairs should be reported in the media."
Only 22% said that if they found out the presidential aspirant they were supporting had been involved in an extramarital affair this by itself would be enough to cause them to switch candidates. But, again, 22% is a significant bloc of voters in most elections.
'Most Important Quality'