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The Times Poll : Presidential Nominees in 47%-47% Dead Heat

Times Staff Writer

George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis now are running neck and neck in their race to the White House, with each candidate demonstrating clear strengths and weaknesses, the Los Angeles Times Poll found.

With less than eight weeks remaining before the election, voters regard Bush as the candidate, by far, who could best handle foreign affairs and keep the nation strong militarily, the survey showed.

Strength From Reagan

In addition, Bush derives strength from his ties to the continually popular President Reagan. And the Republican nominee has scored on the specific issue of taxes and the broad subject of patriotism, as symbolized by his emphasis on the Pledge of Allegiance.

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On the other hand, Dukakis benefits from the voters’ strong desire to “point the country in a new direction,” away from Reagan Administration policies, even if the President is popular.

The Democratic nominee is helped by the overwhelming feeling among voters that not everybody has shared equally in the nation’s economic growth. This is a problem for Bush that is compounded by the fact many people see him a candidate who “favors the rich.”

Additionally, Dukakis’ running mate, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, is more highly regarded than the GOP vice presidential nominee, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle. In fact, most voters with any opinion about Quayle think he would not be “qualified to take over the job of President.”

However, about the most positive thing voters can say about either Bush or Dukakis is that “he’s nice,” interviewers found.

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And, on the negative side, voters tend to think Dukakis is “too liberal” and “doesn’t have a clear message.”

The Times poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, conducted a nationwide telephone survey of 1,105 registered voters last Friday through Sunday. Among those interviewed, 656 were considered to be the most likely to vote. The margin of error for all registered voters was 4 percentage points in either direction and, for the most likely voters, it was 5 points.

When asked who they would vote for today, the likely voters split down the middle--47% for Bush, 47% for Dukakis, 3% for “other” candidates and 3% undecided. This represented a significant gain for Bush since early July, just prior to the Democratic convention, when the Times poll found Dukakis leading by an 11-point margin.

Other polls released this week also showed a tightening up of the presidential race. Surveys by CNN/USA Today and ABC found Bush with statistically insignificant edges of 2 and 3 points, respectively. The Roper Organization showed Dukakis ahead by 6 points. But the Gallup Organization and CBS/New York Times both had Bush in front by 8 points.

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Dukakis Ahead in South

The Los Angeles Times Poll found that, among registered voters, Dukakis had a slight lead in the South, which is supposed to be a Bush bastion. The two candidates are splitting the white vote in the South, but blacks are lopsidedly supporting Dukakis. In other regions, Bush holds a small lead in the East and is a little behind in the Midwest. The candidates are running even in the West.

By party, Democrats support Dukakis by more than 3 to 1. But Republicans back Bush by more than 6 to 1.

The “Reagan Democrats"--those Democrats who deserted their party and voted for Reagan four years ago--are leaning slightly toward Dukakis this time, the survey found.

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But this is a race still very much up for grabs. And that was illustrated by the relative softness of support expressed for each candidate. Only one-third of those interviewed said they are “certain” they will wind up voting for the candidate they presently favor.

Bush Favored on Defense

Bush’s strong suit clearly is his resume--his eight years as vice president and experience as CIA director, United Nations ambassador and U.S. envoy to China. Voters regard him as the candidate who “would do the best job” of handling foreign affairs and maintaining national defense, by 5 to 2 in each case. And people who think that way prefer him over Dukakis by nearly 3 to 1.

But Bush perhaps could capitalize more on this political strength. The general issue of “peace” ranks only in the middle of the pack among subjects voters regard as “most important” in the campaign, just behind “crime.”

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Voters give a slight edge to Bush as the candidate who “would be toughest on crime.” And people who believe this support the GOP nominee by nearly 4 to 1 over Dukakis.

“The most important issue” in the campaign, in the view of those surveyed, is the federal budget deficit.

Taxes at Bottom of List

But taxes--which many economists maintain will have to be raised in order to control the deficit--rank near the bottom on the voters’ list of “most important” issues. Bush has vowed not to raise taxes under any circumstances and has repeatedly attacked Dukakis as a “tax and spender,” despite the Democrat’s insistence he would raise taxes only as “a last resort.”

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When voters were asked who they think would “do the best job of holding down taxes,” Bush got the nod by 5 to 3 among those with an opinion. But almost a third either were not sure or said it would make no difference who the President was.

Bush obviously has found a receptive audience with his attacks on Gov. Dukakis for once vetoing a Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to begin the school day by leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis says the state’s Supreme Court had advised him the bill was unconstitutional.

Nearly two-thirds of those interviewed said that “when someone doesn’t pledge allegiance to the flag” it means they are “less patriotic.” And people who felt this way support Bush over Dukakis by roughly 3 to 2.

Strong on Patriotism

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Also, when asked whether “people these days are placing too much emphasis on patriotism” or “aren’t placing enough,” voters by 3 1/2 to 1 said “not enough.” Even Dukakis’ supporters believed this, by more than 2 to 1.

Although Bush subtly has been trying, starting with the Republican National Convention, to show that he is his “own man” and holds views not always in strict conformity with the Administration’s, the Times survey illustrated that he must walk a political tightrope in distancing himself from Reagan.

Reagan still is highly popular. Voters approve of the way he is “handing his job as President,” by 54% to 39%. And they have a favorable impression of him, by 63% to 33%. What this translates into at the polls is that people who are favorably impressed by Reagan support Bush by more than 2 to 1 over Dukakis.

The delicate problem for Bush, however, was illustrated by another finding in the survey: A significant number of voters considers him to be “a yes man.”

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New Directions Wanted

And, although voters still like Reagan, two-thirds of those interviewed said they want Washington to change directions. There was one bright side for Bush in this finding: People who desire change, by roughly 3 to 2, want to alter only “a few specific things” rather than “a lot” of things.

One thing voters may want changed is the distribution of economic wealth, an ages-old issue. As evidence that Dukakis clearly has an opportunity to campaign effectively as a populist, voters by 9 to 1 agreed that the economy now is “very good for some people, but not very good for others.” Moreover, heading a list of negative phrases considered to fit Bush best was that “he favors the rich.”

Among Bush’s supporters, the most attractive things about him are that “he can get the job done,” he has “strong qualities of leadership” and he is right on the issues. Dukakis’ supporters mainly like their candidate because he “cares about people like me” and has “leadership” qualities.

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But, among all voters, the thing most often said about each candidate was that “he’s a nice man.” Basically, when respondents couldn’t find anything else to say, they told interviewers the candidate was nice.

As for Quayle, 49% said he is “not qualified” to take over the presidency, if need be, and only 24% believed he is qualified. The rest didn’t know enough about him.

COMPARING CURRENT ISSUES IN THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN How do you usually feel when someone doesn’t pledge allegiance to the flag? Do you think of that person as being somehow less patriotic, or doesn’t it concern you much one way or the other?

Less patriotic 62%

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Not much concerned 33%

Don’t know 5%

Do you think the nation’s economy today is shared equally by most people?

Equal 9%

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Unequal 89%

Don’t know 2%

Do you think George Bush has told lies about the Iran-Contra affair, or not?

Yes 49%

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No 25%

Don’t know 26%

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll


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