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'Character Gap' Dogs Clinton

President receives low marks on honesty from public, despite high job approval

For more than six months, President Clinton has defied gravity in public opinion polls.

Even as more and more damaging information leaks out about an alleged relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he has maintained high approval ratings - well above 60 percent in most polls.

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But beneath that number lurk signs of danger for a president whose political fate depends, to a large degree, on how the public views him. While Mr. Clinton continues to project an upbeat image, public perception of the president is becoming more complicated.

Growing numbers of Americans believe Clinton has lied about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. But, even if independent counsel Kenneth Starr is able to prove the president committed perjury over the Lewinsky matter, a majority of Americans are unwilling to see Congress begin impeachment proceedings.

While that may give solace to the White House, there's another rating that may portend trouble: the yawning "character gap" - the difference between Clinton's job-approval rating and his rating for honesty and trustworthiness - that has dogged him since the Lewinsky story broke in January. That gap, which ranges from 26 to 40 percentage points, makes some experts leery of placing too much stock in the job-approval numbers alone.

"The one thing that works against [Clinton's high job approval] is the growing character gap," says Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like this, so it's significant."

Credibility question

According to John Zogby, an independent pollster based in Utica, N.Y., this character gap is "very dangerous," because it represents the weak foundation undergirding his job-approval numbers. Ultimately, he says, "this is not an issue of confidence, it's about being a credible leader, about being credible to the American people."

If Clinton did have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, as Americans increasingly believe, the ultimate test of his character will be whether he comes clean and admits it, says Mr. Zogby. If the dress Lewinsky has handed over to federal prosecutors does prove to contain evidence pointing to a sexual relationship with Clinton, he would have an increasingly difficult time denying any contact with her, thus further eroding his credibility.

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For now, all signals out of the White House suggest continued denials, as a plurality of the public - nearly 50 percent, polls say - insists it doesn't want to hear any more about the matter.

According to some polls, Clinton hasn't always had a negative character gap. In fact, in the first year of his presidency, he consistently ranked higher on the "honest and trustworthy" question than on overall job approval, according to the Gallup poll. In June of 1993, that gap reached 19 points - with a job approval of 37 percent and an honesty/trustworthiness rating of 56 percent - an astounding measure, considering that Clinton entered office with serious questions lingering about extramarital relationships and his military draft record.

More recent polling shows the public has mixed feelings about whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings if Mr. Starr finds that the president has committed perjury. Last week, a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll put that figure at 45 percent, up from 39 percent in June. But a new Time/CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans feel Clinton should not be impeached if found guilty of lying about his relationship with Lewinsky.

On Capitol Hill, both parties are quietly gearing up for possible impeachment proceedings. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have filled more than half of the 14 staff slots it has allotted to handle a report from Starr. Democrats will soon have their four slots filled.

But even if the machinery of a possible impeachment process is being built, historians caution against assuming that the nation is moving toward such a dramatic and demoralizing scenario.

The move to impeach President Nixon, which spurred his resignation in 1974, was traumatic for the nation, and Americans are reluctant to contemplate impeachment again, says Leo Ribuffo, a presidential historian at George Washington University here. "Impeaching a president isn't like getting rid of a prime minister," he says. "It's a big deal, and Americans don't want to go through that."

Not our moral leader?

The nation is not in a crisis era, and therefore, Mr. Ribuffo maintains, Americans are coming around to a view of the president akin to what it was in the late 19th century. "That is, he isn't our moral leader, he's the chief executive of one branch of government," he says.

Some Clinton opponents are resigned to seeing this president finish out his term, but are confident he won't exactly qualify for Mt. Rushmore.

Clinton "desperately wants to be remembered by history for some substantive program," says Dave Hill, a business executive from San Diego and a registered Republican. "Instead, like O.J. Simpson,... [he] will be shunned by everyone."

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