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Public Interested in Capabilities, Issues : Press' Focus on Character of Candidates Hit in Poll

November 19, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

Most Americans have serious problems with the press' focus on character in the 1988 presidential campaign, a new Times Mirror poll has found.

A clear majority believes that the press went "too far" in reporting former Democratic candidate Gary Hart's relationship with a Miami model and the conception of Republican candidate Pat Robertson's first child out of wedlock.

Instead, the poll suggests, the public wants more coverage on issues that it considers pertinent to leadership. Respondents consider it more relevant, for instance, whether candidates have cheated on their income taxes than cheated on their spouses.

Although the respondents approve of press disclosures of a candidate's exaggerated military or academic records, they do not generally approve of the press' reporting whether a candidate was arrested for possession of marijuana.

In general, the public so far is paying scant attention to the 1988 presidential campaign. Less than 15% said that they have closely followed the campaign, compared to 69% who said that they closely followed the story of little Jessica McClure's rescue from a Texas well and 40% who said they followed the stock market's fall.

"Right now, the best thing for a candidate to do who wants to come way up in the polls is fall down a narrow mine shaft and be stuck there for two days," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who served as a consultant on the survey.

The "striking" figures on the public's lack of interest in current presidential politics suggest that this is "one of the least-followed campaigns that we've seen in recent times," Ornstein said at a press conference in Washington Wednesday.

The nationwide poll, conducted for Times Mirror Co. by the Gallup Organization, interviewed 1,501 adults by telephone between Oct. 25 and Nov. 4, 1987. That was before the admission by Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg that he had used marijuana as a college student and professor. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Issues and Qualifications

When asked "what one factor do you think news organizations should pay the most attention to," respondents said:

--Personal character, 9%.

--"Past experience and qualifications," 45%.

--"A candidate's stand on issues," 41%.

Americans recognize that character is only "a slice" of the many personal qualities that make up one's ability to lead, Ornstein said. In isolation, "whether you smoked marijuana or committed adultery doesn't matter very much, but if they turned out to be pieces of evidence of some larger doubt about someone's ability to govern, then yes, they would matter very clearly."

Yet, the line between what kind of qualities reflect on ability and which do not is a subtle one. When the survey asked respondents to decide what kind of scandals the press should "always report" about a presidential candidate, 55% said the press should always report if a candidate is discovered to be a homosexual.

That compared to 41% who said the press should report if a candidate is having an extramarital affair and 36% who said the press should report if a candidate was arrested for marijuana possession in college.

The verdict is clearer in cases in which a candidate is found offering misleading information:

--68% thought the press should always report if a candidate is caught exaggerating his military record.

--65% wanted coverage if a candidate failed to properly pay income taxes.

--64% wanted coverage if a candidate exaggerated an academic record.

Already, the public has serious problems with the press' performance on specific stories.

"The voters resent the fact that candidates are being driven out of the race before they have a chance to vote," Times political consultant William Schneider said.

'Rules of Fair Play'

Gallup President Andrew Kohut said that, on the issue of media overattention to personal character, many of those questioned believe that "rules of fair play are being violated."

"The public is really . . . very dubious about the kind of coverage we've seen on the presidential candidates so far," Kohut said.

For instance, nearly 7 out of 10 respondents thought the press went too far in the way it covered the charges that Hart was having an affair with Donna Rice. Only 29% thought the press had acted properly on that story.

Roughly the same number, 65%, thought the press went too far in covering charges that Pat Robertson's first child was conceived out of wedlock, and only 25% thought the press had acted properly.

Videotapes of Biden

Yet only 36% had problems with the reporting by the press of charges that Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) was guilty of plagiarism in speeches, which helped drive Biden from the presidential race. More respondents, 42%, thought that story appropriate.

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