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THE TIMES POLL

Good Feelings Carry Clinton to Solid Lead

September 12, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — With voters resistant to both of Bob Dole's principal policy arguments, and increasingly optimistic about the nation's basic direction, President Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in his drive for reelection, a new Times Poll has found.

As he battles to overcome Clinton's consistent advantage in national surveys, Dole is primarily emphasizing two issues: his promise to cut income tax rates by 15% and the doubling of teenage drug use that has occurred during Clinton's presidency.

But the Times survey shows that a solid plurality of respondents prefer Clinton's more-targeted set of tax breaks to Dole's sweeping tax-cut plan. And while giving Clinton slightly negative marks for his handling of the drug problem, the survey showed that a strong majority does not blame the president for the steady rise in drug use during his tenure.

Overall, the poll showed Clinton riding on a cresting wave of good feeling, with perceptions of his job performance, the economy's strength and the nation's basic direction all surging toward the most positive levels of his presidency.

Buoyed by that optimism, Clinton holds a broad-based 51%-to-35% lead over Dole among registered voters, with Ross Perot trailing at just 10%. Among the smaller group considered likely to vote, Clinton leads with 54% to 37% for Dole and just 6% for Perot.

Less than eight weeks before election day, the poll also suggests that Clinton's strong position could boost Democrats in their uphill drive to regain control of one, or both, houses of Congress. The survey shows that Democrats now hold a 10-percentage-point lead when voters are asked which party they intend to support in the congressional balloting. The Times Poll, supervised by acting Poll Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,522 adults from Sept. 7 through Sept. 10; the survey included 1,265 registered voters. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey offers conflicting signals to a bipartisan commission due to recommend by Monday whether Perot should be included in the presidential debates. While 63% of those surveyed said Perot should be included, 54% also said there was no chance they would vote for him in November--which could raise doubts about whether the Texan passes the political viability test the commission has laid down for inclusion.

Indeed in a four-way test of sentiment, Perot finished just a shade ahead of Ralph Nader, who is running a shoestring campaign as the Green Party candidate. In that scenario, among likely voters, Perot polled 5% and Nader 4%, compared to 36% for Dole and 53% for Clinton.

Ray of Hope Fades

For Republicans, the darkest news in the survey may be the brightening public attitudes about the nation's direction. Notwithstanding Clinton's consistent advantage in polls since December, Republican strategists saw a ray of hope earlier in the year in the high percentage of Americans who said the country was off on the wrong track. Such dissatisfaction usually signals trouble for incumbents.

But now--as in the weeks before Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984--those clouds are suddenly lifting. In the new survey, 42% of respondents said they believe that the country is going in the right direction, compared to 48% who still said they consider it off on the wrong track. That's a dramatic improvement just since August, when respondents, by almost 2 to 1, said the country was on the wrong track, according to a Times poll. Indeed, the current figures are the highest "right direction" and the lowest "wrong track" responses measured in Times surveys since the opening weeks of Clinton's presidency.

One reason for the improving attitudes about the nation's direction is broadening optimism about the economy. In the new poll, 53% of those surveyed said the economy was not in recession at all, the highest number Times surveys have measured since first asking the question in February of 1991--halfway through George Bush's presidency. Meanwhile, just 8% said the economy faced a serious recession, the lowest number the survey has found.

The Big Question

Asked the campaign question that helped Reagan oust Jimmy Carter in 1980--Are you better off than you were four years ago?--47% of respondents said yes, 33% said their situation hasn't changed, and just 19% said they are worse off.

On Clinton's overall job performance, 57% of respondents gave Clinton positive marks, while just 37% disapproved. These attitudes powerfully predict preferences in the presidential race itself: Eighty-three percent of voters who approve of Clinton's job performance said they will vote for him, while he drew support from just 5% of those who disapprove.

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