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Iraq Strike May Address Key Concern on Clinton

New poll reveals public doubts about both parties' capacity to lead

PRESIDENT Clinton's strike against Iraq was intended to send a clear "Don't tread on us" message to the world about American responsiveness to aggression.

The message will be heard at home, too, by an American public that is highly concerned about the nation's leadership.

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A new survey by RSM Inc., a Republican public-opinion research firm, found a high level of public discomfort over the country's direction and the leadership in both parties. These results, part of a private poll, were offered exclusively to the Monitor.

When asked for their strongest concerns about Mr. Clinton, if any, voters most often indicated that he is "unprepared to be a world leader." One voter in three listed this concern either first or second.

Strong action against foreign aggressors, such as the strike this past weekend, almost always gives a president a surge of public support and confidence - if only briefly. In Clinton's case, the strike could also help shore up a specific weakness in his image, showing that "he is not afraid to act unilaterally and take on world opinion," says RSM pollster Vince Breglio.

In the RSM survey, concern over Clinton's leadership was heavily concentrated among Republican voters. Independents and Democrats are more concerned that he gives in too quickly to pressure and that he can't manage his administration.

Overall, voters reported strong concerns about whether Clinton is up to the job. But Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas and his fellow Republicans in Congress face even more concentrated concern: that they are "out of touch with average Americans." Not only did 42 percent of the voters in the survey rate this as a high concern, but 1 in 3 Republicans hold this view of their party's leaders.

One voter in four is highly concerned that Republicans are too intolerant of those with different values, and about the same number see GOP members of Congress with "no positive program of their own." Another 17 percent see Republicans in opposition to "meaningful political change."

This view of the Republican leadership suggests what RSM analysts call the "Achilles' heel of the Republican Party - their silk-tie and top-hat image of favoring the rich and the status quo."

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The RSM findings are consistent with other recent surveys. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for the Clinton campaign, has heard the same themes in focus groups recently. Voters are worried about whether Clinton can break gridlock, she says. They also complain of his "flip-flops." While they acknowledge he is learning on the job, they fear he is learning too slowly.

The Clinton White House itself appears to have homed in on the vulnerability of the Republicans as the party of the rich and is heavily using that attack to defend the Clinton economic plan.

Outside of Republican ranks, Ms. Lake says, voters are not much concerned about Clinton's leadership in foreign affairs.

Voters are unusually critical these days of their leaders. RSM finds that two-thirds of voters believe the country is on the wrong track, compared with only 22 percent who see the country moving in the right direction. Voters are also unusually critical of their own political parties, RSM found.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 42 percent of Americans approved of Clinton's job performance, while 49 percent disapproved. Messrs. Carter, Reagan, and Bush each had at least 2-to-1 approval at this point in their presidencies.

Yet, as in most polls during the past few months, the public puts considerably higher confidence in Clinton than in his Republican opposition. When asked in the Times poll who had better ideas for improving the economy, 44 percent chose Clinton and 31 percent congressional Republicans.

Enter Ross Perot. "Ross Perot could be the principal beneficiary of this political vacuum with his anti-Washington, anti-traditional politics movement," Dr. Breglio says.

Clinton has some credibility problems. One voter in four rates as a high concern that "you can't believe what he says." These skeptics are heavily concentrated in Republican ranks, however.

But most voter discomfort over Clinton seems to come from concern over his competence and fortitude, his ability to get things done. Republicans, on the other hand, are seen as what RSM analyst Ron Hinckley calls "the Jurassic Park of politics" - very dangerous opponents but attuned to another era.

The RSM survey was taken June 8-10 of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 registered voters. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percent.

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