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A Glum Electorate Could Drift to Clinton

AS the caucus and primary process begins, the attitude of voters is abundantly apparent. Lack of enthusiasm for any presidential candidate, including the president, is seen everywhere. Clinton, Dole, Gramm, Alexander, all of the present contenders: No one is being given more than two cheers by the voters at large.

Oh, yes, Steve Forbes seems to be stirring up some voter interest. Washington government is the target of most of the voter disenchantment. So Forbes, the only truly outside-of-Washington candidate of any consequence, is bringing some of the disenchanted to his side. But for how long? And how much?

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A new Boston Globe poll shows Forbes taking the lead away from Dole in a survey of GOP voter intentions in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. That development merely means, however, that Republicans in that state are expressing their feeling that Dole and the other candidates are losers and that Forbes has a better chance of winning. But several reporters covering that primary have told me the voters really aren't that excited about the magazine millionaire. And the uncharismatic Mr. Dole remains the favorite to ultimately win the nomination.

This jaded voter mood is nothing new. As I roamed the United States for many years as an inquiring political reporter, I found in election after election so many people telling me that it really didn't matter who was elected president - that it would be just ''more of the same.''

Yes, those were the very words so often used - meaning, of course, that these voters didn't think life would be any better for them no matter which candidate took over the White House. Recent polls reflect this doleful view among a high percentage of the public.

To win, a candidate must be able to shake voters out of this negative attitude - or at least enough of them to gain a victory. The low voter turnout in presidential elections persists, a scandal in itself and unchallengeable evidence of the continuing lack of public interest in the outcome of the election.

But today I'm talking about those who do - not those who don't - vote and their current lack of interest in the present field of candidates. When apathy is king, then who wins? My guess is that in this kind of a climate a sitting president has the advantage. Voters may not be too happy with Clinton. But they will probably settle for the man they know, with his flaws, rather than replace him with someone they really can't get too excited about.

Colin Powell is the one Republican who could have stirred the voters out of their doldrums. Had he been able to win the nomination (and this would have been very difficult), Powell would have beaten Clinton, as I see it.

Yes, Clinton as of now would seem to have a slight edge. But it's obvious that he is very vulnerable. We have yet to know if there is any substance in the Whitewater, Travelgate, and related allegations. But there is a possibility (fervently hoped for by many Republicans) that enough improprieties, if not illegalities, on the part of Mrs. and Mr. Clinton will surface to end the Clinton chances of reelection.

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Also, in Bob Woodward's informative book on the Clinton White House - ''Agenda'' - he writes that at the beginning of the Clinton administration two of the president's consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala, ''had one doctrinaire belief about 1996: Clinton could be defeated if people believed he hadn't brought about change.'' They then added this dire prediction, according to Woodward: ''If there were only the same old, stale feeling in the air, Clinton would be doomed.''

We forget that it was Clinton's promise of change, of ending gridlock in Washington and making government work, that awakened enough of the electorate and brought enough of them to his side to give him his unimpressive victory.

Are there enough voters who will want to throw Clinton out for not fulfilling this promise that they will vote for someone they aren't excited about? That may be the big question at election time. But right now Clinton looks like he can beat off the challengers.

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