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Gore Still Lags on Leadership Issue


Despite growing public optimism about the nation's direction, Al Gore heads toward the Democratic National Convention burdened by voter doubts about his leadership and widespread skepticism that he deserves credit for the strong economy, a new Times Poll has found.

The poll suggests that, at this point in the campaign, personal doubts about both Gore and President Clinton are outweighing the traditional tendency of voters to reward the party in the White House for good times. Only half of voters who believe the country is on the right track now say they will vote for Gore--a much smaller percentage of satisfied voters than usually supports the party holding the White House.

In all, the poll found Republican nominee George W. Bush leading Gore by 48% to 39%, with Green Party nominee Ralph Nader (at 3%) and Reform Party contender Pat Buchanan (at 2%) attracting minimal support. Bush's lead nearly doubles the five-point advantage he held in a Times Poll just before the GOP convention earlier this month.

The survey highlights the complex challenges facing Gore at the Democratic convention this week. At once, Gore must find a way to improve his personal image (which is less favorable than Bush's, the poll found), unify Democrats (who are now supporting him at a lower rate than Republicans are backing Bush), and reach out to independents (who now prefer Bush by a double-digit margin). Perhaps above all, Gore must find a solution to this year's paradox of prosperity: the willingness of many Americans content with the country's direction to vote for change by supporting Bush.

The Times Poll, supervised by poll Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,227 registered voters from Friday through Sunday; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The survey also asked a series of questions that attempted to determine which voters were most likely to turn out in November; in that smaller group of "likely" voters, Bush's lead expanded slightly to 52% to 40%, with Nader (at 2%) and Buchanan (at 1%) almost vanishing.

Bush's strong showing may at least partially reflect the continued benefit of the "bounce" he received at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia this month. As that effect recedes, Gore is hoping to gain substantial ground this week with the traditional bounce from his convention.

Voters expressed a generally positive response to Gore's selection of moderate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, though the choice didn't yet seem to be changing the dynamics of the election. Nearly three-fifths of those surveyed thought Lieberman was qualified to serve as president and about half said they had a favorable impression of him; both numbers were comparable to those that voters expressed about Dick Cheney after Bush selected him as his running mate last month.

But only 15% of those polled said Lieberman's selection made them more likely to support Gore; nearly 8 in 10 said the choice would have no effect. Lieberman's religion--he is the first Jewish candidate chosen for a national ticket--seemed a nonissue to most respondents: Nearly 8 in 10 said the country was ready for a Jewish vice president.

Bush Holding the Center Better

Democrats point out that at the Republican convention in 1988, Bush's father, former President George Bush, faced--and met--many of the same challenges confronting Gore. After trailing his rival for most of that campaign year, the elder Bush used his convention to resolve doubts about his leadership and surge into a lead over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis that he never relinquished.

But even with that precedent, the breadth of the difficulties facing Gore on convention eve are still formidable, the poll found.

Most fundamental, Gore is facing an erosion of the electoral coalition that Clinton built in his two victories. Following the pattern in most surveys this year, the new poll shows Bush demonstrating broad-based appeal. At this point, the Texas governor is holding the center, even as he consolidates the Republican base to an extraordinary degree and cuts into Gore's strength among groups that usually lean Democratic.

Those advantages are evident from several different angles. At the most basic level, Bush has done a much better job of unifying his base than Gore: In the survey, an almost unprecedented 95% of Republicans say they are backing Bush. Just 78% of Democrats now say they will vote for Gore. Bush is attracting 18% of Democratic men--and more than one-fourth of white Democratic men.

Bush also holds a 16 percentage-point lead among independents. He holds a large lead among independents who consider themselves conservative, and is holding Gore to a relatively modest 11 percentage-point advantage among independents who consider themselves liberal or moderate.

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