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Poll: Clinton Critics More Likely to Vote

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By David S. Broder and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page A06

The American public continues to give broad support to President Clinton in his fight to remain in office, but a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday indicates those who are likely to vote in November are more critical of his conduct and want to see Congress hold hearings on his possible impeachment.

Despite recent turmoil in the stock market and the international economy, three out of four Americans approve of Clinton's handling of the economy. His overall job approval score remains near its all-time high.

Incumbents in Congress draw even higher ratings, but as the House approaches a decision next week on beginning a formal impeachment inquiry, there are warning signs for both parties.

Three out of five respondents disapprove of the way Republicans are handling the investigation of Clinton's admitted improper relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, and just over half disapprove of congressional Democrats' tactics. Majorities think both parties are more interested in scoring political points than finding the truth.

The public says, 55 percent to 42 percent, that Congress should drop the matter. But among likely voters, a 53 percent majority says hearings should be held. Likely Republican voters favor formal hearings by 6 to 1 while likely Democratic voters are 3 to 1 opposed.

That creates what Republican pollster Linda DiVall called "a dilemma, a very significant problem" for the GOP majority in the House. Its members can feel a push in the back from their own strong supporters to press ahead on the course that could lead to impeachment, but they could run into a wall of disapproval from the broader public. "It is critically important the public believe we are handling this in a fair and even-handed way," DiVall said.

While the poll contains many indications that Republicans and anti-Clinton voters are likely to vote in larger proportions in the election than Democrats and Clinton supporters, one measure indicates a potential backlash against the GOP if Congress moves closer to impeachment.

The Post-ABC News poll showed that 66 percent of the general public and 60 percent of likely voters oppose Clinton's impeachment and removal from office, based on what they know now. The opposition dipped slightly with the release of the Starr report earlier this month, but has come back to about the same level it was in August after Clinton first acknowledged he had concealed an "improper" relationship with the former White House intern.

Among likely voters Nov. 3, 77 percent of Democrats say they feel strongly Clinton should not be forced out of office, while 56 percent of the Republicans feel strongly that he should be.

The survey taken last Friday through Monday included 1,505 adults, among them 715 likely voters. As always, it showed considerable ambivalence in the public about Clinton and his future.

While a large majority opposes impeachment now, as many have an unfavorable impression of Clinton as think favorably about him. Two-thirds say they would not trust him personally, but six out of 10 say he should remain in office rather than resign. Yet half those polled said that if it is shown he lied under oath about having an affair with Lewinsky, he should be impeached and removed, and, on a separate question, three out of four said they believed he had lied about that matter.

The poll indicates that much of the reluctance to see Clinton impeached has little to do with exoneration. As many people said they opposed impeachment because it would be too disruptive to the nation as said they oppose it because they don't think it's been shown that he did anything serious enough to merit that punishment.

Overall, the poll registers extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction with the condition of the country and the job performance of its elected officials -- something that should bode well for incumbents in general and for Republicans in particular, as they seek to hold their majorities in governorships, the Senate and the House.

The state of the economy is rated good by 85 percent of the public and nine out of 10 likely voters. Positive ratings of the federal government are higher than the Post-ABC poll has recorded at any time this decade. Congress has a positive 52 to 44 percent approval rating, well above where it was in 1994 or 1996, and the job approval score of individual House members is a breathtaking 70 percent. More than half the likely voters said they are inclined to reelect their representative.

The GOP has an edge in the turnout battle, but the partisan advantage is not overwhelming at this point, suggesting Democrats outside the capital have not been completely turned off by the scandal at the top of their party. About half the Republicans and GOP-leaning independents indicate they are likely to vote; for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, it's about four in 10.

That turnout differential explains why Democrats lead in a trial heat for the November congressional election 49 to 44 percent among all registered voters, but trail Republicans 49 to 46 percent among likely voters.

The survey has little evidence that the Lewinsky matter and Clinton's fate are much of a factor when voters think about the voting decisions they will make in five weeks. Two-thirds of likely voters say they will not use their vote to express support for or opposition to Clinton; 14 percent want to express support; 18 percent, opposition. Asked about a candidate who called for impeaching and removing Clinton, 33 percent said that stand would make them more likely to oppose the candidate; 27 percent, to favor.

The idea of censuring Clinton remains popular -- six out of 10 members of the public favor that action by Congress. But the public is deeply cynical about what motivates congressional consideration of Clinton's case. Two out of three say Republicans mainly want to hurt Clinton, and the same proportion say Democrats are trying to protect their standard-bearer.

Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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