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The Times Poll : Americans Look More Favorably on Soviets

December 20, 1987|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Americans no longer think of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and they strongly support the treaty banning ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles, but they are not starry-eyed about an improved relationship between Washington and Moscow, The Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Politically, President Reagan's personal popularity received a significant boost from his summit meeting Dec. 7-10 with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, reaching heights he has not enjoyed since the Iran-Contra scandal erupted 13 months ago, the nationwide survey showed.

And the popularity of the arms control treaty Reagan and Gorbachev signed was demonstrated when nearly one in four Republicans and independents said that if conservative GOP senators block ratification of the pact, "this issue alone would be enough" to cause them to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988.

Additionally, Republicans by an 8 to 1 ratio and Democrats by 15 to 1 said they would be "more likely" rather than "less likely" to vote for a presidential candidate who supports the treaty. This public sentiment may have been in the mind of Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, a candidate for the GOP nomination, when on Thursday, after a long delay, he enthusiastically endorsed the pact with Reagan standing at his side.

However, Vice President George Bush is the only Republican candidate to have unequivocally endorsed the agreement. Dole said he would seek some minor changes, and the other four GOP contenders have expressed opposition to the treaty in its present form. All the Democratic presidential candidates, on the other hand, support the pact.

People in this poll overwhelmingly said the treaty should be ratified--72% to 11%, with 17% undecided.

The Times Poll interviewed 1,826 American adults for five nights beginning Dec. 10, making the first telephone calls about the time Gorbachev was leaving Washington after the summit had ended. The margin of error is 3% in either direction.

"People seem to be prepared to enter a new era in Soviet-American relations, but they have not put out of their minds the many real conflicts that have to be resolved in order for this to happen," Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis said. "There are a number of specific problems that this new 'feel-good' foreign policy is not going to sweep under the carpet."

Guardedly Optimistic

Evidence of a new, guardedly optimistic era in American public opinion about the Soviet Union was found in answers to the question, "Do you believe the Soviet Union is an evil empire that threatens our moral and religious values?" A clear majority of people--57%--answered that they do not, with just 32% saying they do. This relatively upbeat attitude toward Moscow was expressed by Democrats and Republicans alike.

It was the other way around three years ago when people told The Times Poll, by 55% to 38%, that they considered the Soviet Union to be an "evil empire." And just before the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, in November, 1985, Americans still regarded the Soviet Union as "evil," although by a narrower margin of 49% to 43%. It was Reagan in March, 1983, who initially denounced the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" and its Communist regime as "the focus of evil in the modern world."

There also were other signs in this survey of improved feelings toward Moscow: While half the people described U.S.-Soviet relations as "unfriendly," two-thirds of them did two years ago. And fewer than a third in this poll believed that "someday we'll have to fight the Russians in order to stop communism," but two years ago half thought so.

The summit drew high marks from the public, with 72% calling it a success and only 8% considering it a failure.

Gorbachev likewise scored big, with 58% of the people voicing a favorable impression of him, against only 16% unfavorable. By contrast, sentiment toward the Soviet leader immediately prior to the first summit two years ago was 33% favorable and 18% unfavorable, with 49% not sure.

Strong Strain of Pragmatism

But Americans clearly are not Pollyannaish when it comes to assessing U.S.-Soviet relations. There may be some euphoria, but there also is a strong strain of pragmatism.

For example, when people were asked whether they believed "the United States will be able to verify with any accuracy whether the Russians are complying" with the treaty, more people thought the treaty could be verified than thought it could not--but by just five percentage points.

And people also were of two minds when asked to what extent they "would be willing to give the Russians the benefit of the doubt about complying with a nuclear weapons agreement." Nearly half said they would want to be "100% certain" that the Kremlin was complying, but almost as many were willing to accept far less certainty in exchange for obtaining a treaty.

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