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  •   Public Favors Independent Counsel

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 15, 1997; Page A06

    A majority of Americans believe the investigation of White House fund-raising activities should be taken away from the Justice Department and turned over to an independent counsel, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.

    The survey found that most Americans doubt the country's political leadership is serious about campaign finance reform, and an even larger majority say they do not expect President Clinton and Congress will make significant changes in the way campaigns are financed.

    But the poll also indicates the public itself may not yet be serious about reform. Only three of 10 voters said they would be more likely to support a candidate in next year's congressional races who had voted for campaign finance reforms, suggesting there may be little incentive for incumbents to back legislation to change the system that helped elect them. Fewer than half 44 percent of those interviewed said reforming campaign finance laws should be a "major" goal of the federal government.

    Despite new rounds of disclosures about White House fund-raising, the president remains popular with Americans. Clinton's latest job approval rating stood at 59 percent, unchanged from August though below his highest approval rating of 64 percent in July.

    While Clinton apparently has not been hurt by the developing fund-raising scandals, Vice President Gore continues to lose favor with the public. Fewer than half 45 percent of those interviewed said they had a favorable impression of Gore, down from 49 percent one month ago and 56 percent in March, when he was as popular as Clinton and the clear heir apparent to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

    Gore may still be the person to beat. But the Post-ABC News survey found that the vice president's once squeaky-clean image has been tarnished by a Justice Department probe into fund-raising calls he made from his White House office and by his involvement in other fund-raising activities.

    While only a third of those polled said they believe Gore did anything illegal in connection with those White House fund-raising calls, two out of three said the calls were "inappropriate."

    Gore currently is viewed as less honest than Clinton, who has been dogged by doubts about his integrity since before he took office nearly five years ago. When asked if Gore has the "honesty and integrity" to be president, 48 percent said he did but 43 percent disagreed. More than half 55 percent said Clinton had the honesty and integrity to be president.

    A total of 1,515 randomly selected adults were interviewed Oct. 9-13. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

    Justice investigators are probing various allegations involving fund-raising for the 1996 campaign, including charges that Clinton and Gore may have illegally solicited contributions from the White House. Investigators also are examining charges that the Democratic National Committee may have solicited money from citizens of other countries, a violation of federal law.

    The poll found that many Americans remain dissatisfied with the progress of the investigations, and six out of 10 respondents said they wanted those investigations turned over to an independent counsel.

    Four out of 10 say they approve of the way Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department are handling the campaign financing probe. But just as many disapproved of Reno's performance.

    The public is far more critical of an ongoing Senate investigation into campaign fund-raising. Two out of three said the main goal of committee members from both parties was to use "the investigation for political attacks," while one in four said the committee was mainly trying to find "out whether illegal activities occurred."

    Americans had just as little sympathy for the targets of those inquiries. Most expressed sharp disapproval of Clinton and the White House. More than six in 10 said the Clinton administration was "dragging its feet most of the time" in response to the Justice and Senate investigations.

    This month, the White House turned over to the Senate videotapes of dozens of events with donors that had been sought for months by committee investigators. Clinton said it was an "accident" that the tapes were not found until recently. Most of those polled said they found the president's explanation unconvincing. Seven in 10 said they believed the tapes were "hidden on purpose," while one in five said they agreed with Clinton.

    The survey also suggests that the majority of Americans do not believe meaningful campaign finance reform will be accomplished. By 55 percent to 42 percent, those interviewed said they doubted Clinton was serious about campaign finance reform. Similar majorities expressed skepticism about the commitment of congressional Republicans and Democrats to reform, and 59 percent said they do not expect Clinton or Congress to change campaign finance laws.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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