They're the dissident doubters: Americans who continue to just say no to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, still see the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and don't want to come in from the Cold War.

They once held the high ground in foreign policy debates. Today, they are on the outside of mainstream public opinion looking in.

They're people like Antoinette Erway, 41, a homemaker in Owego, N.Y., one of the 1,526 persons interviewed recently for a Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

Nearly three out of four respondents had a favorable impression of Gorbachev. But one out of four disliked the Soviet leader. "I'm leery of him," Erway said. "He holds out freedom and then he takes it away. I just don't trust him."

Two out of three persons said the Cold War is ending. But a third, like Erway, disagreed. "I don't think it's over. They keep saying we're your friend. But they're planning something."

Eight out of 10 said changes in the Soviet Union will lead to a new era of cooperation between East and West. Erway and one out of six other survey respondents saw these changes as calculated posturing. "Gorbachev just wants an advantage," she said.

Six out of 10 say Gorbachev truly wants peace. "I doubt it," said Erway, a view shared by one-third of those questioned. "My son just joined the Marines. I don't want him to go get himself killed because we didn't watch out."

To more closely examine public opinion on U.S.-Soviet relations, The Post divided survey respondents into three groups according to how they answered the four key questions on U.S.-Soviet relations.

Only 6 percent of those in the poll shared Erway's consistently cautious and negative views on the four questions. But an additional 13 percent stated similarly pessimistic opinions on three of the four questions.

Call this group the "Doubters." The survey suggests that about one out of five Americans currently shares this group's consistently negative view of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

In vivid contrast, 42 percent of those interviewed answered all four questions positively, saying they had a favorable view of Gorbachev, thought the Cold War was ending, said the Soviet Union really wanted peace and believed the changes in the European communist world signaled a new era of cooperation between East and West. Call them the "True Believers." The survey suggests that this group represents a plurality in the United States.

A somewhat smaller group -- 38 percent of those questioned -- remained in the middle. This group acknowledged some positive changes, but still expressed concerns about Gorbachev and the real meaning of recent events in Eastern Europe. Call them the "Straddlers."

Here's a more detailed view of the newly emerging structure of public attitudes toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations:

The Post-ABC poll found that Doubters tended to have less formal education and were less affluent, on average, than True Believers or Straddlers. For example, 40 percent of all Doubters in the Post-ABC poll didn't finish high school. But 87 percent of the True Believers had graduated and 75 percent of the Straddlers also had high school diplomas.

Women were twice as likely as men to have consistently negative views of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in the poll. Still, only 25 percent of women and 12 percent of men were Doubters.

About half the respondents who described themselves as "very conservative" in the poll were Doubters. But just 15 percent of all self-described conservatives and 19 percent of all moderates fell into this class, as did less than 10 percent of all liberals -- numbers suggesting that generally favorable attitudes toward the Soviets extend nearly across the ideological spectrum.

The poll showed that Doubters were much less likely to be interested in foreign policy issues. Nearly two-thirds of this group, for example, acknowledged that they were not closely following accounts of the summit.

Even though they said they weren't keeping up with the pre-summit news, more than half of all Doubters said no significant accomplishments would result from the meetings. In contrast, only one out of four True Believers -- most of whom said they were closely following the summit -- expected no major accomplishments from the summit in Washington.

The poll showed that Doubters saw recent changes in the Soviet Union as only temporary: Seven out of 10 said there was a good chance that the Soviet Union would return to the "hard-line communism it practiced before." In contrast, only three out of 10 True Believers expressed a similarly pessimistic view.

Seven out of 10 Doubters reject major cuts in defense spending. In sharp contrast, two out of three True Believers support big reductions in the Pentagon's budget. The poll data indicate that True Believers dominate the elite political, social and economic decision-making classes of the country.

True Believers tended to be much better educated than either Doubters or Straddlers: Six out of 10 college graduates were True Believers. And they tend to be wealthier too. Six out of 10 persons with household incomes of $50,000 or more are True Believers.

Significantly, True Believers are about equally represented in both political parties: About four out of 10 Republicans and Democrats held consistently favorable views on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, suggesting these increasingly favorable views of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union will shape both parties' thinking.

Six out of 10 True Believers say President Bush should do more to keep Gorbachev in power and an even bigger majority favors direct economic assistance to the Soviet Union, views that are shared by only one out of three Doubters.

Amid the upscale True Believers and the downscale Doubters are the Straddlers, who show themselves to be neither overtly suspicious nor entirely convinced: They answered at least two but not all four key questions negatively.

As a group, they vote -- not as regularly as True Believers, but more frequently than Doubters. They're more likely than Doubters to be high school graduates but less likely than True Believers to have finished college.

They're also disproportionately likely to be Democrats. In fact, among the 237 persons interviewed who identified themselves as strong Democrats, 44 percent were Straddlers while only 27 percent were True Believers.

That's because Straddlers include a disproportionately large share of black Americans. Half of all black respondents interviewed fell into this category, while a third were Doubters and only one out of five was a True Believer.

Straddlers remain consistently divided on policy questions as well. They split evenly on assistance to the Soviet Union and, by 55 to 43 percent, oppose major cuts in military spending.