Texas Gov. George W. Bush hasn't suffered many setbacks in his presidential campaign, but former representative Guy Molinari (R-N.Y.) delivered one yesterday.

Molinari, who had been a leader of a draft-Bush group last spring, abandoned the front-runner in favor of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"What he's demonstrated is a fierce streak of independence, which I think equates to leadership," Molinari explained in a telephone interview a few hours after being named McCain's New York chairman.

Molinari, who was a leading supporter of Bush's father in the 1988 presidential campaign, said his endorsement of McCain was not meant as "an anti-Bush thing." Instead, he said, he has been "increasingly enchanted" with what McCain has been doing and saying of late and impressed by favorable comments from "an awful lot of people in the streets."

Molinari, now Staten Island borough president, denied that his endorsement of McCain was connected to a feud with New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R), Bush's leading supporter in the state. "There's no question that the governor and I had a falling out, but that had no bearing on it," he said.

Gore Gains Against GOP Front-Runner

Vice President Gore got some encouraging poll news yesterday for the first time in a long time. He's still trailing Bush in a hypothetical general election matchup, but by less than he did a few months ago.

The Pew Research Center reported that its latest poll showed Bush at 51 percent and Gore at 44 percent. Last month, Bush led Gore by 54 percent to 39 percent.

Most of his improved standing resulted from a sharp increase in support among women. The poll showed that 50 percent of women favored Gore to 45 percent who supported Bush. A month ago, Bush led among women 53 percent to 40 percent. Bush's lead among men remained solid.

Gore's lead over Bill Bradley remained solid in the national survey testing whom Democratic voters want as their presidential nominee. Sixty percent said they favored the vice president, with 31 percent saying they supported Bradley.

In the contest for the GOP nomination, Bush remained far ahead of his rivals, with 63 percent. McCain and Elizabeth Dole each had 10 percent, with the rest of the field in single digits.

The President's Subordinate Role

Wondering whether President Clinton was bothered by Gore's remark in an interview with The Washington Post Friday that he might ask his boss not to campaign for him? "No," the president told reporters yesterday.

Asked to elaborate, Clinton did--at considerable length. "This election is about the American people," he said. "And they are perfectly happy to make the decision that is theirs every four years. And they will make it for themselves. And the candidates will be the major players. Everybody else, to a greater or lesser degree, is in a subordinate role, as they always have been."