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Voters' Attention Turning Toward Societal Issues

Pollster detects growing US concern about moral values, other noneconomic matters

A BRIGHT red Mazda convertible zipped along I-66 near the nation's capital. On its rear bumper, three colorful stickers proclaimed, "Perot for President," "Bush/Quayle '92," and "Bill Clinton for President."

The Mazda's trio of bumper stickers is a metaphor for the 1992 presidential race, which is still anybody's to win.

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The latest ABC/Washington Post poll finds the major presidential candidates trading places again in a wildly changing contest. Among registered voters, Bill Clinton came in first with 33 percent. Ross Perot had 31 percent, and President Bush 28 percent. It was the first time Mr. Bush had run dead last.

Meanwhile, the voters, who worried for months about the economy, are proving as fickle as the polls. Since last autumn, Americans have been telling pollsters that their No. 1 concern was jobs. Nothing else mattered. Just get America back to work, and everything will be OK, they said.

Now that's changing. The economy has turned around a little bit, South-Central Los Angeles burned, and the public's focus has shifted.

Richard Wirthlin, who studied public opinion for President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, says in his latest survey that social issues, including moral values, are beginning to loom bigger than economic issues.

Dr. Wirthlin suggests that maybe Vice President Dan Quayle was on target when he attacked the values that TV teaches to young people - though Wirthlin suggests that singling out the popular "Murphy Brown" show was politically awkward.

In his latest report, based on 1,029 June interviews, Wirthlin found that social issues like drugs, education, crime, health care, poverty, the environment, and racial discrimination narrowly outpaced recession and unemployment in public concern.

The shift away from economic issues, however, didn't improve the public's mood, which remains cranky. The number of Americans who think the country is traveling along the wrong track is still sky-high at 81 percent.

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Says Wirthlin's report: "Discontent and uncertainty run rampant. There is a demand for national leadership that is not being met by the leaders of either of the major parties."

Wirthlin then adds an ominous note for the White House: "The 12 percent of Americans who believe that the country is heading in the right direction represents the lowest `right direction' percentage we have measured in over 12 years of tracking national attitudes."

As the Democratic National Convention approaches, the great unknown in this race is still Perot. This week, he tantalized some voters by saying the economic platform of former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts was "the most impressive" he had seen so far. Would Mr. Tsongas, perhaps, be chosen for a Perot Cabinet? And can Perot, who has streaked across the public consciousness like a shooting star, keep shining?

Larry Hugick, an analyst with the Gallup Poll, recalls that former Rep. John Anderson, who ran as an independent in 1980 against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, also did extremely well - briefly.

Mr. Anderson started quickly, moving from 18 percent in the April 1980 polls, to 24 percent in the June 1980 polls. Then he fizzled out like a Fourth of July sparkler. He dropped to 14 percent in August, and ended with less than 7 percent in November.

Interestingly, Perot climbed from 26 percent in April to 36 percent in early June, but now seems to be fading. Experts have predicted for months that he would "do an Anderson," and wither by November.

Equally tantalizing to experts is Bush's prolonged nose dive. The president was at 36 percent in the ABC/Post poll in late April. He has fallen steadily ever since - to 33 percent in mid-May, 31 percent in late May, 30 percent in early June, and now 28 percent.

This week, Bush weathered yet another storm as the US Supreme Court weakened abortion rights won in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Democrats in Congress now promise to put pressure on the president by passing a new law guaranteeing women the right of choice on abortion. A veto could hurt Bush with pro-choice voters.

Meanwhile, Clinton seems to be the benefactor of the past two weeks. As Perot and Bush hammered each other, Clinton picked up the pieces.

Mickey Kantor, campaign chairman for Clinton, says that whatever the other two candidates do, the Arkansas governor will keep talking about the issues.

"We're sticking to our economic plan - to jobs, and to what we think the American people are concerned about," he said in a telephone interview. As for the recent Bush-Perot spat, Mr. Kantor says:

"We think the American people are not concerned about a food fight. We should be talking about what has happened in the last 12 years, with the top 1 percent getting all the benefits."

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