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CLINTON UNDER FIRE | THE TIMES POLL

Sexual Allegations Damage Clinton's Popularity Rating

Times Poll: Most appear willing to forgive alleged tryst with intern. But majority would favor removal from office if he is found to have lied or obstructed justice.

January 25, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

New allegations of sexual misconduct have taken a substantial toll on President Clinton's popularity, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll, which also found that Americans are evenly divided over whether the president encouraged a former White House intern to lie about the nature of their alleged relationship.

Although most appear willing to forgive Clinton if he had a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky--and a plurality believe he did--Americans by a margin of 2 to 1 said the president should resign or be impeached if he lied about his conduct or sought to obstruct justice.

Further, the controversy appears to have slightly eroded confidence in the president's honesty and integrity, although his overall job performance appears relatively unscathed.

"People still think he's running the country well. But his Teflon is wearing thin," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll. "If there are more revelations, it doesn't bode well for the president."

Already, a significant majority believe the allegations will interfere with Clinton's ability to function as president for the remainder of his term. One third of those responding believe Vice President Al Gore will be politically harmed by the controversy, while 57% say it will make no difference to him.

At the same time, Americans have formed somewhat conflicting views about Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who has conducted an investigation of the Clinton administration for the last 3 1/2 years.

Although most believe Starr is simply doing his job in pursuing the latest allegations, clear-cut majorities object to some of the methods Starr has used in his investigation.

More broadly, a sizable majority believe that Starr has been acting more out of partisan motivation than a desire to ascertain the truth.

Overall, Americans have been closely following the latest allegations to hit the White House, with 96% expressing at least some familiarity with the matter.

The Times Poll was conducted Friday and Saturday among 1,191 adults nationwide. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey found only a slight dip in Clinton's job-approval rating, from 63% positive last September to 59% in the latest survey.

But even so, Clinton's personal favorability rating dropped notably, from 59% in September to 48% in the latest survey, as Americans appeared to be drawing a distinction between job performance and the president's personal character. His unfavorability rating increased to 45% from 35%. Half feel he has the honesty and integrity to be president, whereas 41% suggest he does not.

"I think it's a pattern," said one respondent, Mary Merrill, 63, a retired insurance broker in Hopkinton, N.H., who said she thinks Clinton is lying about his relationship with Lewinsky. "I think the man has a problem with sex."

Forty-four percent of those surveyed believe Clinton had a sexual affair with the 24-year-old Lewinsky, despite the president's repeated denials. Thirty-three percent believe the president, and 22% are undecided.

In the same vein, 48% believe Lewinsky was telling the truth when she detailed a sexual relationship with the president in secretly recorded tapes. One third believe Lewinsky was telling the truth in a legal affidavit she signed denying any sexual relationship. About a fifth are undecided.

The respondents are virtually split on whether Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie to cover up their alleged affair--which the president also vehemently denied. Forty-two percent believe Clinton urged Lewinsky to lie, and 44% believe Clinton's denial.

Pinkus suggested many are waiting for the swirl of rumors and revelations to settle down before making up their minds.

"I think people have a wait-and-see attitude," she said. "It's something they don't want to believe. They've seen the president weather a lot of allegations before and want to see if these charges develop into something more serious."

Mike Christiansen, a 49-year-old carpenter in Middleton, Idaho, was among those who felt torn. "I don't like Clinton to begin with, so I'd sort of like to give [Lewinsky] the benefit of the doubt. But because it's a man in his position, I'm kind of stuck in the middle. I don't like him personally, but I respect the office."

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed appear willing to forgive the president if, in fact, he had an affair with Lewinsky. Thirty-one percent said having an affair would be reason enough for Clinton to resign, but 62% disagreed.

"We have these feelings that presidents should only be the best and brightest and have the highest possible morals," said Julie Turner, 56, of Portland, Ore. "But presidents are human beings. And in [Clinton's] case, we knew this was an issue."

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Turner, however, drew a sharp distinction between having an affair and trying to cover it up. "If he were to encourage someone to lie, that's a horse of a different color," Turner said.

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