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  •   U.S. Optimism Buoys Clinton, Congress

    By Edward Walsh and Richard Morin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, August 25, 1998; Page A4

    The same general sense of contentment in the country that appears to be benefiting President Clinton during the worst crisis of his presidency is also buoying Congress in the eyes of the public – an encouraging sign for the Republican majority less than three months before midterm elections, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

    Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they think that in general the country is going in "the right direction," while 55 percent said they approved of the way Congress is doing its job. Both measures of public satisfaction were near their highs since the GOP took control of Congress by capturing the House in 1994, usually a favorable omen for incumbents seeking reelection.

    Democrats held a slight lead over Republicans among likely voters who were asked whether they would vote for the Democratic or GOP candidate in their congressional district if the election were held now. But with the fall campaigns yet to begin as Congress awaits independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on his investigation into Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, that slim Democratic advantage suggested that the party faces an uphill battle to recapture the House in November.

    "More people identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, so whenever we're close [this early] we feel pretty good," said Mike Murphy, a GOP consultant. "Once the campaign really gets going, with the campaign plans we have and the president's problems, it should get better. The ballgame hasn't started, and we're on second base."

    "There is no question that it is a good year for incumbents and obviously there are more Republican incumbents than Democratic incumbents," said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman. But, he argued, while "the numbers do tell us we do not have a national demand for change, we do have a national demand to deal with some issues. Those issues are by and large ones where people trust Democrats more than Republicans."

    The survey of 1,015 randomly selected adults was conducted last Wednesday through Friday after Clinton's televised statement that he lied when he denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

    Despite the speech, the U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan several days later and a week of volatility in the stock market, the public's sense of contentment appeared unshaken, at least for the moment.

    "On the great measures of peace and prosperity that have always driven opinion, America is in as good a shape as it has been for the better part of a century," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster based in Atlanta. "Both Congress and Bill Clinton are benefiting from that."

    Support for Congress is remarkably bipartisan, according to the poll. Half of all Democrats and independents and two out of three Republicans say they approve of the job that Congress is doing. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) remains a controversial figure with only a third of Americans viewing him favorably, but that is as high as his approval rating has been since early 1995.

    Ayres argued that the combination of the public's satisfaction with Congress and its disapproval of Clinton's behavior could "open a trap door beneath the Democrats" in November in the form of suppressed turnout among Democratic voters and a surge in voting by Republicans and independents eager to register their anger at the president.

    David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant, said it is premature to speculate about the Lewinsky matter's impact on the November elections. "There are some core Democratic constituencies, particularly minorities, who are incensed by the Starr inquisition," he said. "It may be that Democrats will perceive this as an attempt to derail a progressive agenda and snap back. And it may be there will be a depressed turnout. I don't think anybody knows."

    The improvement in people's perception of the overall direction of the country is due to increased optimism among Republicans and independents, particularly women, that is directly tied to the economy. According to the poll, 43 percent of all Republicans, up from 38 percent last month, approve of the country's direction. At the same time, 59 percent of all independents – it was 45 percent last month – are pleased with the course of the country, as are 67 percent of all Democrats, unchanged from July.

    The poll showed Vice President Gore so far has not been touched by the Lewinsky scandal: 55 percent of those surveyed, about the same as throughout the year, said they have a favorable impression of him.

    As for the two women most directly affected by the Starr investigation, the poll showed dramatically different public perceptions. Hillary Rodham Clinton has never been more popular with Americans and is better liked than her husband. The number of Americans who have a favorable impression of her increased from 58 percent in July to 64 percent in the latest poll.

    Lewinsky remains among the most unpopular figures in the scandal. Her unfavorable rating in the latest poll stood at 74 percent, highest since the scandal broke in January. Respondents of Lewinsky's own age are the least sympathetic to her. Three in four respondents between the ages of 18 and 30 say that Clinton shouldn't apologize to her and that they have an unfavorable view of her.

    Meanwhile, a new survey by ABC News found that 55 percent of those surveyed said Congress should "censure or officially reprimand" Clinton for his actions in the Lewinsky matter. But like other recent polls, the survey found little support for forcing Clinton to leave office. Only 24 percent said Congress should impeach Clinton, while 30 percent said he should resign.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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