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THE STARR REPORT

Americans Still Standing Behind Clinton, Polls Find

Inquiry: Early returns show president's favorability rating steady at 60%. But a backlash could still hit.

September 13, 1998|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Americans analyzed their president's sex life and debated his future Saturday, but early public opinion polls showed that they have not changed their minds about Bill Clinton since the titillating report about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky was released Friday.

That doesn't mean they won't.

Experts said it is likely to take a week or so for Americans' real feelings about the report--and the effect on the president's approval rating--to register in opinion polls.

White House officials know better than to put too much stock in early polling, but they were taking some solace from instant polls showing Clinton's approval rating still hovering around the 60% mark. (In the year before President Nixon resigned, his approval rating fluctuated but never went above 34%. When he left the White House, his approval rating was 23%.)

Pollsters wasted no time in dialing up voters to gauge reaction to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's massive report to the House.

Cable News Network put the report on its Web site at noon PDT and started polling at 3 p.m. What it found, among other things, was that 6 in 10 people surveyed had not heard or read anything about the report.

Experts Not Surprised About Early Results

Several experts said it is not surprising that little had changed in the CNN/Gallup, Newsweek and ABC News polls conducted Friday night and early Saturday. The president's approval rating remained where it has been. People continued to show little appetite for Clinton's resignation or impeachment. And responses showed persistent levels of disgust with his personal behavior.

Just 39% of respondents to the Newsweek poll said Clinton was sincere in his Friday morning confession at a White House prayer breakfast.

CNN found an overwhelming number of people disgusted with the explicitness of Starr's report: 72% found unnecessary its uncensored details of Clinton and Lewinsky's sexual encounters.

Today, several news organizations, including The Times, were planning to take fresh polls.

"I wanted to wait a little bit because it was such a frenzy Friday," said Susan Pinkus, The Times' polling director. "I wanted people to have time to read excerpts of Starr's report in the newspapers and on the Internet and to have a little more rational thought about it."

Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, said that overnight polls after an event catch people too soon.

"It could take longer, but over the course of the next week we're going to know more," he said.

The public already knows the outlines of the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr story, he said, "so the basic issue is will this report sufficiently shock people to the point of getting them to think it's a wrongdoing of serious proportions or that [Clinton] has lost his moral authority."

In Houston, Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles, reaction to the report was playing out in the usual unscientific ways: People expressed a range of opinions.

Andrea Weeks, 28, had it in for Starr as she sat reading his report Saturday with her breakfast at the 11th Street Cafe in midtown Houston. "I support Clinton more than I did before," she said between bites of biscuits and cream gravy. "I feel like he needs support because he's suffering worldwide humiliation."

Jan Hickel, a 30-something TV producer and writer in Atlanta, said she feels that Clinton let her down.

"I haven't read the whole thing," she confessed softly. "Just the dirty parts."

But that was enough to give her a "weird feeling in the pit of my stomach." Though a staunch Clintonite the last eight months, she is finally giving up on him.

"He's a sex-addicted overachiever from a dysfunctional family," she said with a sigh. "My heart is broken for my country. . . . His legacy is carved in stone."

'I Liked Him Before and I Really Still Do'

But Mark Little, 37, of Falls City, Wash., was hanging in with Clinton. "His morals aren't what we expected of a president," said Little, a carpenter standing in line at a fast-food restaurant near the Seattle waterfront. "I'm a Democrat, so what I would say is either keep the guy in there and get over it or get rid of him. I liked him [Clinton] before and I really still do."

At Pasadena City College, Prof. Alberto Juarez tried to explain to about 50 students in a government class that their opinions are important right now.

"This is one of the critical times in America's history where your voice is important," Juarez said before giving his students an assignment.

"I want you to write a letter to the president," Juarez said. "I want you to express your views. Look at it from your standpoint: 'Dear Bill, Quit.' Or, 'Dear Bill, Hang in there.' Whatever it is that you feel."

Then he cautioned them about what might happen in the coming weeks: "The bad news is, a lot of absurd things happen in politics."

*

Times staff writers J.R. Moehringer in Atlanta, Jocelyn Y. Stewart in Pasadena, Edwin Chen and Elizabeth Shogren in Washington, and Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this story.

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