ORLANDO, Fla. — All the turmoil in Washington seemed far away when hundreds of walkers, bird-feeders, joggers, bench-sitters and boaters filled Lake Eola Park here on Saturday afternoon.
But it didn't take much poking to find strong emotions about the votes in the House of Representatives to impeach President Clinton. Sitting near the lake, Gilbert Medina and his wife, Arelis, enthusiastically took up posts on the opposite sides of the argument that has consumed the capital and alternately fascinated and horrified the country.
"What the Republicans are doing is wrong. This is a setup, truly unjust," insisted Gilbert, who works at a parts warehouse. "How is the country in jeopardy? How is that impeachable?"
His wife was unconvinced: "But what tone is he setting? That he is above the law? I tell you, most women are not offended on the fidelity issue, but because he lied."
What was striking about this exchange was not only the intensity of the couple's views--but their consistency. Neither had their assessments changed at all by the House's approval Saturday of two articles of impeachment against the president.
And judging by national surveys, neither did many other Americans: In a CBS/New York Times poll Saturday night, just 5% said the House debate affected their views one way or the other.
For now, that's left the balance in public opinion still tilting clearly toward Clinton--with most Americans continuing to oppose his impeachment and believing that he should serve out his term rather than resign, as many Republicans are now demanding. Just 31% of those surveyed in the CBS/New York Times poll said the country would be better off if Clinton resigned. In an NBC poll Saturday, Clinton's approval rating even increased to 72%--his best showing yet in the network's polls.
Public views may not have changed much after the historic House votes partly because relatively few of those in Orlando--and three other communities where The Times conducted interviews on Saturday--were riveted to the lengthy proceedings last week. But the stability of public opinion also points toward another conclusion: After nearly 11 months of saturation media coverage and passionate political argument, most Americans appear to have made up their minds--both about the nature of Clinton's offenses and the level of punishment they demand.
"We all know what happened," sighed Ethan Miley, a mechanical engineer in Boulder, Colo. "It just keeps going and going."
The Times interviews found that rank-and-file Republicans remain committed to forcing the president from office, but also that the House vote did little to shake Clinton's support among rank-and-file Democrats. That means Democratic senators are likely to face considerable pressure from their base not to abandon Clinton as the struggle moves into the upper chamber.
"The impeachment is the most horrible miscarriage of justice I have ever seen," said Nancy Miller Lewis as she lugged two bags of Christmas presents through an upscale shopping mall in Troy, Mich. "This is all about politics and not about what the people want. I hope all those people who voted for impeachment get voted out of office."
Even so, the interviews found faint cracks in Clinton's support among voters who have been dubious of impeachment.
Impeachment Vote Spawns New Feelings
Charles Fortney, a retired printer who was watching his 8-year-old grandson in the park in Orlando, is the kind of voter who's giving White House aides nightmares these days.
Fortney, a Democrat who voted for Clinton twice, finds the president's impeachment unjustified and vindictive: "Censure and a fine would have been enough," he said. "The Republicans are mad at him because he won't do what they want him to do."
But now that the House has acted, Fortney isn't sure what he wants to happen next. "I don't really want Clinton to resign," said Fortney, who wrote three letters to his congressman, Republican Bill McCollum, opposing impeachment. "But now it may be better for the country. We've spent millions and millions of dollars on this crap."
Fortney, however, was the exception in the four communities where Times reporters inquired whether Saturday's vote had eroded Clinton's public support. Each was in a county that is generally closely contested between the parties, but where Clinton has run well in the past.
Contempt in Affluent Detroit Suburb
The president found the least sympathy in Oakland County, Mich.--an affluent Detroit suburb and traditional Republican redoubt that Clinton broke through to carry in 1996. Here, many traditional Republicans, like Charlie Karadsheh, could barely conceal their contempt for Clinton. "We have to set a precedent for our children," he said. "If you do something wrong, you have to pay for it. The office of the president has to be held to a very high standard."