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THE TIMES POLL : Public Backs Congress but Not Tax Cut Plans : Republican leadership wins qualified support. Yet Americans doubt GOP agenda can turn country around.


WASHINGTON — With the symbolic 100-day milestone approaching, Americans give qualified approval to the new Republican Congress, though they remain dubious of GOP plans for sweeping tax cuts, a new Times Poll has found.

In the survey, a plurality of Americans said that they back the GOP legislative agenda and a majority said that the Republicans are working to fulfill their campaign promises rather than backing away from them. But less than one-third said that they believe the Republican agenda will improve conditions in the country and nearly three in five say that it is unrealistic to consider cutting federal taxes now.

Similarly ambivalent notes resounded through the survey. On many important questions--from the priorities for economic policy to the relative capacity of President Clinton and congressional Republicans to solve the nation's most important problems--neither side musters a majority of public support. And despite the GOP success at moving much of its agenda rapidly through the House, the poll finds just 13% of those surveyed expressing much confidence in Congress, down slightly since January.

Indeed, the poll portrays a public still largely withholding judgment on the major actors in the furious political debate engulfing Washington and only intermittently engaged by the debate itself: A clear majority of those surveyed cannot name a single item in the GOP's "contract with America" which congressional Republicans have made progress with.

The poll finds President Clinton adrift near the midpoint of public opinion, with Americans narrowly approving of his job performance but a majority saying that they now plan to vote against him next year. In a trial heat for 1996, Clinton trails Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who has emerged as a clear front-runner for the Republican nomination, according to the poll.

Though the results of early presidential primaries can upend national polls almost overnight, Dole heads toward the April 10 formal announcement of his candidacy in an enviable position: In the survey, Republican partisans prefer Dole by a margin of three to one over his nearest rival, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. California Gov. Pete Wilson, who apparently is nearing a formal declaration of his candidacy, begins well back in the pack, drawing support from just 2% of those surveyed.

The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,285 adults from March 15 through March 19. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Like other recent national polls, this survey shows a political landscape in which the sharpening policy dispute between the parties is consolidating partisan allegiance at both ends of the ideological spectrum. On many issues, the poll reveals a public sharply polarized along partisan lines, with independents holding the balance and in most instances tilting guardedly toward the GOP.

Take, for instance, public attitudes toward the Republican congressional agenda. The GOP plan draws support from 76% of Republicans but disapproval from 57% of Democrats; independents cautiously favor the plan, 42% to 30%. Or take attitudes toward Clinton's performance in office. For all the grumbling from some party leaders about Clinton, 77% of Democrats give him high marks. An equal 77% of Republicans disapprove of his performance. Independents again split closely, with 46% approving, and 45% disapproving. Since January, Clinton's rating among Democrats has slightly increased, while falling 13 percentage points among Republicans.

Even the proposed nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. as surgeon general--a subject on which many Americans are still uncertain--starkly divides the parties. Overall, Americans support his confirmation by 41% to 27%. But just over one in four Republicans back him, compared to about half of Democrats.

The pattern reappears most forcefully in a hypothetical general election matchup between Clinton and Dole. Overall, Dole leads among registered voters by 52% to 44%. Clinton draws support from 80% of Democrats, while a dramatic 96% of Republicans said they back Dole. Independents lean toward the Republican Party, 52% to 42%.

Not all Democrats are satisfied with Clinton. In the survey, about one-third of probable Democratic primary voters said that the party should look for another nominee in 1996. The fact that far fewer Democrats defect to Dole in a hypothetical matchup underscores the extent to which the sharpening political hostility in Washington appears to be reinforcing partisan loyalties among voters.

As House Republicans move toward completion of their extraordinarily ambitious 100-day agenda, the poll shows general support for their efforts, though doubts about specific priorities, and restrained enthusiasm, at best, that the program will significantly change American life for the better.

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