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Voters Rank Candidate's Ability as Most Important

October 01, 1987|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In choosing a new President next year, Americans say they will be looking for a candidate with ability and are far less interested in issues, positions or personal character, according to a poll taken for Times Mirror Co.

In fact, the subjective quality of character--so profusely written about and commented on when former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) abandoned their candidacies--ranks low on the voters' list of important qualities for a President.

The survey also indicated that voters think the next President should be a Washington insider who knows how to "make the system work." But neither of the two candidates currently leading the Democratic pack is a Washington insider.

In this nationwide poll, taken Sept. 1-15, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led the Democratic field, propelled by overwhelming support from fellow blacks and helped significantly by white Christian evangelicals. In second place was Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the only other Democratic contender whose support level reached double digits.

The results of the survey, taken before Biden and Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder dropped out of the race, were Jackson, 24%; Dukakis, 15%; Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, 7%; Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, 7%; Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., 6%; Biden, 4%; Schroeder, 3%; former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, 1%; others, 3%, and undecided, 30%.

In the race for the Republican nomination, Vice President George Bush led Kansas Sen. Bob Dole by a wide margin, 42% to 23%, followed by New York Rep. Jack Kemp, 12%; former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., 6%; television evangelist Pat Robertson, 6%; former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, 2%; others, 1%, and undecided, 8%.

The poll, taken by The Gallup Organization, consisted of 1,903 telephone interviews, with an error margin of 2%.

The survey actually involved follow-up interviews to a much larger poll, which was also conducted for Times Mirror by Gallup last April 25-May 10. In the larger poll, 4,244 adults were interviewed face to face for more than an hour.

'Most Exhaustive'

Both surveys, which Gallup called "the most exhaustive study of the American electorate ever undertaken," were released here Wednesday by Robert F. Erburu, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror, which publishes the Los Angeles Times.

In the follow-up survey, people were asked which single factor they gave the most weight to "when judging a candidate for President--his character, his stand on issues or his ability to accomplish things?" The responses were ability, 49%; issues, 33%; character, 14%, and don't know, 4%.

Character ranked second--albeit a distant second--only among one bloc of Republican voters that Gallup defined as "Enterprisers," an affluent, highly educated, pro-business group.

Issues stands ranked as the top criterion only among two of 11 voter blocs identified by Gallup: " '60s Democrats," an upper-middle class group strongly aligned with peace, civil rights and environmental causes; and "Seculars," well-educated independents who lean Democratic and profess little religious belief.

Poor people and those generally on the lower end of the income scale were especially interested in electing a President who could "accomplish things."

There may have been some disturbing news in the survey for Dukakis: By a 3-1 ratio, the public said that serving in Congress "better prepares someone to be President" than being a governor.

And by a 2-1 ratio, people said the next President should "be someone with experience in Washington who is more likely to know how to make the current system work" rather than a candidate "who has not worked in Washington and who is more likely to change the way things are now being done."

In this survey, however, more tangible factors were also obviously at work in candidate selection. Jackson, for instance, was supported by 69% of blacks aligned with the Democratic Party. His nearest "rival" for the backing of blacks was Gore, at a mere 4%.

Dukakis was the No. 1 selection of Anglos, who favored him by 18% to 14% over Jackson. Gephardt got 9%. But one notable exception among Anglos was evangelicals, who chose Jackson over Gore, 16% to 11%. Dukakis was third at 10%.

Support of Seculars

Among the Gallup voter blocs, Dukakis fared best with the predominantly white Seculars, outdrawing Jackson 27% to 17%. He also ran well among '60s Democrats but trailed Jackson, 22% to 27%.

Gephardt's best showing came within a bloc that Gallup dubbed "Partisan Poor"--heavily Democratic, low-income, one-third black. But this group also was Jackson's strongest. Gephardt ran third at 12%, slightly behind Dukakis and 22 points behind Jackson.

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