President Reagan's weekend visit to a German military cemetery created antagonisms within the Jewish community "stronger than we are able to measure in survey research," the president's pollster said yesterday.
Richard B. Wirthlin, president of Decision Making Information, said Reagan's visit to the cemetery at Bitburg, which contains the graves of 49 Waffen-SS soldiers, has provoked feelings among Jews going "far beyond questions of simple political support. I think it has created an emotional tearing that will have some consequence."
Despite the intense, adverse reaction among Jews, Wirthlin contended that "Reagan's job rating through this rather bitter and highly visible controversy has remained somewhat stable . . . . It is too early to assess what the course of Bitburg will be on the president's fortunes."
All Americans, the pollster said, "even in the eye of the storm . . . , divided almost equally on whether the president should go to Bitburg or not."
Wirthlin, at a breakfast meeting with reporters, said he took part in White House strategy discussions before the trip, but he refused to say where he stood. "I really wouldn't have any comment," he said.
Wirthlin said reaction to the Bitburg trip could hurt Republicans seeking election in 1986, particularly in such states as New York and Florida, where the Jewish vote is a significant factor.
Sens. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) are among those whose terms expire next year.
A majority of respondents in an April 22 Washington Post-ABC News poll disapproved of the president's Bitburg cemetery visit by 51 percent to 39 percent, with the remainder offering no opinion.
The poll also showed a drop in the president's approval rating; it fell to 54 percent, the lowest since October 1983.
Although leaders of many veterans' groups sharply protested the cemetery visit, Wirthlin said "there is evidence that prior to the European trip rank-and-file veterans were not that concerned."
Within the Jewish community, however, Wirthlin said, "there is no question that Bitburg raised strong, strong emotions -- stronger than we are able to measure in survey research.
"Survey research is a very rough-and-ready tool," Wirthlin said. "You look through a mirror darkly clouded. It is not a good tool in assessing how deep those antagonisms go among the Jewish community."
In the general public, he said, Reagan's cemetery visit evoked the strongest opposition among those over 60 -- "those who went through the Second World War" -- and the most support among those 18 to 24 -- "the most Republican, the most strongly supportive age group."
If Jewish voters were asked how they would vote if last year's presidential election were being held today, there would not be a "massive" shift toward Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic nominee, because he received two-thirds of that vote anyhow, Wirthlin said.
"The evidence is pretty clear," he added, "that the Jewish community has been strongly alienated because of this specific event."
In New York yesterday, Kenneth J. Bialkin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called Reagan's cemetery visit "most regrettable," although he moderated his criticism.
Bialkin said "we disagree" with the decision to visit the cemetery, "but we do not accuse the president of ill will; it was a failure to recognize how deeply we feel . . . that led to the series of errors he made."
He spoke of Reagan's "deep sincerity" for "the suffering of the victims of Nazi Germany," praised the administration's pro-Israeli policies and indicated that the dispute may have sensitized many to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Bialkin also said he did not believe that the Bitburg dispute damaged relations between the White House and the American Jewish community.