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  •   Poll Finds Continued GOP Gains

    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, September 11, 1998; Page A41

    As Congress waits to gauge the fallout from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton, new polls suggest the political winds continue to shift in the direction of Republican candidates.

    A new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center indicates congressional Republicans are gaining favor with the public and closing in on a variety of issues once thought to be the domain of Democrats. Perhaps most ominous for Democrats is movement by historically reliable voting groups – senior citizens and people in the Northeast – toward the GOP.

    "With two months to go until the midterm elections, GOP prospects are being bolstered by significant improvements in the party's national image, while Democrats are on shakier ground," the new poll concludes.

    Two Democratic Party strategists said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is weighing the need to devote more money to incumbent protection in reaction to the shift in sentiment among voters. "The incumbents are getting the money and the challengers are being hung out to dry," said one Democratic consultant.

    Another source, who also did not wish to be named, said anxiety is growing. "They're looking at some pretty hard choices in terms of funding," said this strategist, who has been in regular contact with the DCCC. "They are worried about incumbents who are marginal or on the edge of marginal."

    One Capitol Hill aide overseeing House races said it would be "foolish" to make any strategic decisions until after party leaders assess the impact of the Starr report.

    "We are about to have a huge event take place that has potential to change the whole thing one way or the other," this staff member said. "I certainly concede it is probably for the worst, but let's wait and see."

    Although staff members at the DCCC vehemently denied the possibility of scaling back its targeting of open seats and some Republican incumbents, the committee's chairman, Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), was less firm. "No decisions have been made on that," he said.

    The Pew poll of 2,266 adults, conducted Aug. 27-Sept. 8, shows the GOP ahead, 48 percent to 45 percent, if the elections were held today. Congressional Republicans are at their most popular since late 1995 and even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has climbed 11 percentage points in the survey, to a favorability rating of 41 percent.

    At the same time, the poll found a large majority of Americans, 76 percent, want Clinton to complete his term and a solid 65 percent say he should not be impeached even if he did lie under oath about his 18-month affair with a former intern.

    Although Clinton's job approval remains strong – 61 percent in the Pew survey – the pollsters found that fortunes of congressional Democrats are closely tied to the president's popularity.

    "This poll shows no movement but does show how dramatically things could get worse for Democrats should the revelations in this report do what everything else has failed to do," said Andrew Kohut, director of the center. "Even a small decline in the president's approval ratings could lead to a big shift in voter sentiment."

    Two other new surveys, by CBS and NBC, show the president's job approval is beginning to slip below 60 percent. But Democratic officials said the broad national trends are meaningless compared to the quality of individual candidates and their ability to campaign on a strong set of issues.

    "What you see right now is still a very close election," said Frost. "We're not ready to make any conclusions yet in terms of trends."

    But even as Frost was promoting the Democratic policy agenda, Kohut said Republicans are gaining ground on those critical issues.

    "This Republican gain and Democratic loss is particularly pronounced for education, health care and Social Security, areas that traditionally favor Democrats," his poll concludes.

    Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said he has not seen numbers to suggest a large Republican tide. But he does worry about high-profile Democrats abandoning the president.

    "If a general perception is created that Democrats are walking away from the president, it has the potential to create a downward spiral," he said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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