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Poll Finds Impatience With Ongoing Starr Investigation

By Dan Balz and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page A01

With the Paula Jones case dismissed, an overwhelming majority of Americans say independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should move to conclude his investigation of President Clinton, according to a new Washington Post Poll.

A strong majority of those surveyed said the charges Starr is investigating -- perjury, intimidation of witnesses and obstruction of justice -- represent serious allegations. But there appears to be no strong appetite for removing Clinton from office, even if Starr produces convincing evidence of wrongdoing. However, only a fraction of those surveyed said Clinton should escape completely if the charges prove true.

Ronald Martin, 58, of Lawrence, Mass., said he preferred a reprimand by Congress to impeachment if there is proof of wrongdoing. "I think it would hurt the country," Martin said of impeachment. "Let him finish out his term. I don't think it warrants removal from office unless something else more serious is there."

Clinton's job approval rating remained strong in the new Post poll, as it has throughout the controversy over allegations that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and that he or others may have urged people to lie to cover up the relationship. Clinton has denied the allegations.

But the president's personal ratings have taken a beating from the allegations that surfaced in January. Half of those surveyed in the latest poll said they believed he has broken the law.

Complicating Starr's job in the weeks ahead is the continuing belief among a majority of Americans that he is politically motivated, rather than working simply to find the truth in a complex case. Of those surveyed, 56 percent said Starr's goal is "hurting Clinton politically," while 32 percent said Starr is working "to find the truth."

A total of 809 randomly selected adults were interviewed from Thursday through Saturday. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The poll found growing impatience with the independent counsel's four-year inquiry into a host of issues, from Arkansas land deals to the alleged relationship between the president and Lewinsky.

One in three Americans said Starr should end his investigation now, given the dismissal of Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit last week. Another third said he should impose a deadline on the investigation. Only a quarter said he should be allowed to continue his investigation as long as he believes is necessary. Even among Starr supporters, a third said there should be a time limit and 4 percent say it should end right away.

"I think it should stop right now," said Robert Deware, 75, a military retiree who lives in Sanford, Fla. "He's been at it for quite a few years. . . . This isn't doing the country any good."

David Watrud, 52, a small businessman from Edina, Minn., said: "Out here in the heartland, people are far more than weary of the Kenneth Starr investigation. Out here in the Midwest, people are saying, 'Come on, Ken, get a life.' "

But David Van Name, 38, who lives in Liberty, S.C., offered a dissenting view. "My personal opinion is that you shouldn't put a time limit on this because they [Clinton and his legal advisers] can stall and you'll never get to the truth, and that's what this whole thing is about, is the search for the truth."

Even if Starr presents Congress with compelling evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the president, Republican leaders will face a difficult decision in determining how to proceed. Three-quarters of those surveyed said the charges Starr is investigating are serious, but people are widely split on what they think a proper disposition of the case should be.

Almost four in 10 said proof of illegal conduct should warrant impeachment or resignation, while 16 percent of those surveyed said Clinton should face no penalty or accountability. The rest of the population was divided as to whether Clinton should be reprimanded by Congress (22 percent) or apologize to the country for any proven misconduct (21 percent).

Both Republicans and Democrats believe Clinton should be held accountable if he is found to have lied under oath or encouraged others to lie. But they differ on just how severely the president should be punished.

More than half (54 percent) of all Republicans said Clinton should resign or be impeached, while one-fourth said Congress should formally reprimand the president but not force him from office. Thirteen percent said Clinton should apologize, while 5 percent believe nothing should be done.

Democrats were far more divided and far less punitive when asked what they thought should happen if Clinton committed perjury or urged others to do so. Roughly equal percentages favored each of the four options.

"I think whether or not the president lied under oath is important," said Joanne Manning, 35, a Fort Worth accountant who voted for Clinton in 1992 and 1996. But she added that "what happens in his personal life" should not be of great concern to the country. "A reprimand is probably in order," she said. "I don't know that he's done anything to put the country in jeopardy."

"I think that, just like anybody else who lies under oath, he should be punished to some extent," said Toni Arellanes, 34, who lives in Livermore, Calif. "As far as being impeached, no, I don't think so."

But Crystal Renee Martin, a 21-year-old gymnastics teacher from Rusk, Tex., who also voted for Clinton, said the president should consider resignation if he is found conclusively to have lied under oath or obstructed justice. "I don't want a president who lies to his people and who sexually harasses other women," she said.

It is not clear what kind of evidence must be produced to put Clinton in real jeopardy. Even some people who believe he has lied do not appear ready to call for serious action. "Most people lie about sexual encounters," Deware said, adding, "I don't want him impeached. . . . I think he should be made a little embarrassed about it. I don't think Congress should get involved in it."

Clinton's healthy approval rating and the strong economy continue to bolster the president in the face of the ongoing investigation. His 65 percent approval rating is 4 percentage points lower than his peak, which was achieved in the week after the Lewinsky charges broke.

Also, 55 percent of those surveyed said the country is going in the right direction, compared with 41 percent who said it is off track. Those findings are slightly less optimistic than at the end of January, and well above the levels recorded during most of Clinton's presidency.

"He's not my husband, and I have no questions for him," said Carrie Santos, 28, a social worker from Milford, N.H. "Just make sure you keep unemployment down and jobs available and the economy great and that's all I need."

As Republican congressional leaders ponder their next steps, The Post poll found the public almost evenly divided in its judgment of how well Congress is doing its job (47 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove). Congressional approval peaked in January at 56 percent, but the current level is still better than anything recorded during the first three years of the GOP-controlled Congress.

Congressional Republicans also will face the reality that Clinton is viewed far more favorably than either Jones, Lewinsky or Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House volunteer who said Clinton made a sexual advance in the Oval Office suite in 1993. Even among Republicans, only 16 percent have a favorable impression of Jones, compared with 53 percent who have an unfavorable impression.

Whatever the next phase of the investigation may bring, the American people appear comfortable with the decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to dismiss the Jones case without a trial. The Post poll found that two in three people surveyed approved of Wright's ruling. About four in 10 said they were "pleased" by the decision, with a quarter saying they were "relieved." Another quarter of those surveyed said they were "disappointed," while just 7 percent said they were "angry."

"It should never have been an issue," Santos said.

When asked whether they believed Clinton made a sexual advance to Jones, 42 percent said they thought he did, 21 percent said they thought he did not, and 37 percent said they had no opinion.

But even among those who believe that Clinton did make an improper sexual advance toward Jones, 36 percent said they are relieved or pleased the case was dismissed.

On a related question, three in five Americans said they believed Clinton had engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct over the years. In separate questions, majorities said Clinton "has only himself to blame" for his problems and that his political enemies "are conspiring to bring down his presidency." When asked to say which was the more important factor in bringing about the current situation, 48 percent said Clinton's conduct, compared with 46 percent who said his enemies.

A majority of Americans said they believe the scandal could hamper Clinton's ability to govern in the future, although slightly less than half of those surveyed said it would be only a minor hindrance.

But 68 percent of Americans said Clinton's presidency may be remembered more for allegations about his personal life than for his accomplishments in office.

Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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