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Presidential Soundings at Mid-Campaign

WE'RE now at the midpoint of the long 1992 presidential campaign. Both parties have largely settled on who their nominees will be.

There really was never a contest on the Republican side. "Buchanan" was only a place on the ballot where primary voters could tell the president forcefully that his performance could be better.

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The Democrats had a real contest - albeit a curious one because their established national figures chose to remain on the sidelines. Now, the apparent victor, Gov. Bill Clinton, is struggling; it's even possible he will lose next Tuesday's primary in New York. Still, Mr. Clinton has amassed so many delegates, and in the future will get so many more under the party's proportional representation formula even if he doesn't shine, that his nomination is assured. Unless, somehow, he's driven from the race.

At this half-way point, we have learned a lot about the electorate's underlying judgments on George Bush vs. Clinton. For one thing, we have a pretty good reading on what it thinks of President Bush.

A comprehensive survey taken 10 days ago by the Gallup Organization for USA Today and the Cable News Network showed Bush's presidential approval score at 41 percent - about where it's been over the last two months. He was somewhat stronger among men than among women, and notably stronger among the young than the old. Among whites he was strongest in the South, weakest in the Northeast.

To get a richer perspective on Bush's strengths and weaknesses, the poll asked respondents to assess him on a long battery of personal and political characteristics. They described him as very strong on intelligence, "upholding family values," and steadiness in a crisis - the latter suggesting that the Gulf war's lasting impact politically may be stronger than many analysts now believe. Bush got middling marks on "standing for something," and rather weak scores on "charisma," caring about ordinary people , and being able to bring about needed change.

The electorate's sense of Clinton is very different, sometimes in entirely predictable directions. The Gallup poll showed him, for example, easily besting Bush on charisma, and trailing the president badly in terms of exemplifying family values.

But other elements in the electorate's comparison of the two contenders were less easily anticipated and, on the whole, underscore Clinton's general weakness. The "agent of change" and "caring" dimensions are normally Democratic strong points, but here the Democratic governor does only marginally better than the Republican president.

In the finding that should trouble his supporters most, the poll showed that doubts about Clinton the man translate into doubts about him as a prospective president in the area of judgment under pressure. Just 24 percent thought he would "display good judgment in a crisis"; 61 percent said this about Bush.

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Like other surveys conducted in recent months, this late-March Gallup poll showed Bush apparently in deep trouble on economic leadership. Only 17 percent of respondents approved "of the way George Bush is handling ... economic conditions."

In fact, though, queries like this one come across to many respondents as amalgams of two entirely different questions: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with current economic conditions? And, how much do you fault the president for what's wrong?

Surveys that have sought to untangle these two dimensions have regularly found Democrats, too, coming in for a large share of blame, and failing to generate confidence in their capacity for economic leadership. Strikingly, the Gallup poll showed the two parties getting exactly equal support on the question of "which political party ... will do a better job of keeping the country prosperous."

The poll did not ask about the possible impact of a third-party run by businessman-maverick H. Ross Perot, but a just-completed Los Angeles Times survey did. Presented with a hypothetical three-way race among Bush, Clinton, and Mr. Perot, 21 percent said they would back Perot.

That's a very large proportion. Such results aren't to be taken seriously, though. US politics is littered with third-party or independent candidacies that started with apparent strength and went nowhere. Even well-established political personalities like Henry Wallace in 1948 and John Anderson in 1980 saw their November vote fall to a third of what polls in the spring had indicated. And there was plenty of discontent both those years. Since the 1930s only racial antipathies have been strong enough to fu el a consequential third-party run.

Of course, a Perot total approaching Mr. Anderson's 6.6 percent in 1980 could be consequential this year, given a close race. But the strong judgment here is that Perot, should he persist, will not wear nearly as well as did Anderson.

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