Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta had a bad feeling about the attitudes of young people toward public service. Now he's got a new poll to show him that his suspicions were right--at least partly.

Panetta and his wife, Sylvia Panetta, run The Panetta Institute, which is devoted to encouraging public service. The institute commissioned a survey of 800 college students to find out, as Panetta asked, "How bad is it?"

Of eligible students, 43 percent did not vote in the 1996 presidential election and 66 percent did not vote in 1998. Only 27 percent said they closely follow politics, or discuss it at least three times a week.

On the other hand, students do show a surprising civic-mindedness. Nearly three-quarters have done volunteer work in the past two years, and 80 percent say it is "very important" that they find a job that "will make a positive difference in people's lives."

The former congressman and Clinton aide said he is disheartened that students think national politics is not connected to their lives, but noted that the survey offers hope they will change their minds over time. "The reality is, when they're involved at the community level, it's only a matter of time until they realize there is a relevance to what politics is doing" to the community issues they care about, Panetta said.

First Lady to Make It Official in February

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday she will make her campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in New York official early next month, while Democratic sources said the tentative date has been set for Feb. 6.

The news about the first lady's timetable comes as a new poll shows her continuing to run behind her likely Republican opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion found 49 percent of registered voters favoring him, compared with 40 percent for her. Perhaps more troubling for the campaign, her favorable rating has dropped 20 percentage points from a year ago, with 48 percent now reporting a positive opinion.

Campaigning in Rochester, Hillary Clinton said she expects President Clinton and daughter Chelsea to be with her for the campaign kickoff--formally launching a de facto effort that has been underway for months: "I have to be sure that I've got their schedules coordinated, but that's what I'm planning."

Campaign aides said scheduling has been a juggling act, with the need to find an open news hole after the inevitable news attention that will go to the president's Jan. 27 State of the Union Address and the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary. After her visit to Rochester, the first lady drove to nearby Geneva to speak at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, where a former senior Clinton aide, Mark Gearan, is president.

Religious Rhetoric Moratorium Urged

A coalition of religious leaders called yesterday for a "moratorium on religious rhetoric" from the presidential candidates and vowed to dog them on the campaign trail until they stop.

Reviving a civil rights tradition, the group of 100 religious leaders spanned all faiths and races, from Senior Bishop Hurst Adams of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Most are allied with the moderate to liberal wing of their faith.

At a news conference in Washington, speakers attacked the religious buzzwords of the campaign, from the "born again" title claimed by every candidate except Bill Bradley to the universal praise for faith-based organizations.

"We aren't looking for a convert or a congregant," said the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood. "We need a president who has the clarity and strength to tackle what we believe to be the core, corrosive issue of our time--the presence of a vast group of working poor in the midst of plenty."

The Industrial Areas Foundation, a grass-roots organizing group established by the late Saul Alinsky, is helping with the effort. It is the first time IAF has turned its attention to national politics. The coalition plans to campaign in New Hampshire, calling on candidates and voters to "reject the rhetoric of religiosity that permeates this presidential campaign and call for more in-depth debate of the central public issue of this period."

Staff writer Hanna Rosin contributed to this report.