AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Public Interest in Riots Ranks With Gulf War : Survey: Violence in L.A. captured as much attention as the explosion of the space shuttle. People seem less concerned with economy and more with presidential race.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rodney G. King beating verdicts and the rioting that followed in Los Angeles were among the most riveting events for Americans in years, comparable to the space shuttle disaster, the San Francisco earthquake and the war with Iraq, a survey released today has found.

Americans also are beginning to pay somewhat less attention to news about the economy, though it remains a major concern, according to the News Interest Index, a monthly poll produced by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, which measures public response to the news.

The poll also found that interest in news about the presidential race, despite low voter turnout, remains significantly higher than it was four years ago.

Seven in 10 Americans surveyed said that they paid very close attention to the Los Angeles riots. In the six years since the center began such surveys, only the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 were followed as closely.

Asked to assess the media's handling of the riots, 52% of blacks criticized it as being fair or poor, while 66% of whites rated it as excellent or good.

In February and March, nearly half of all Americans, 47%, were very closely following news of the economy. By the latest survey, taken April 30 to May 3, that figure had dropped to 39%, suggesting that Americans are becoming less concerned with the subject, a significant indicator of consumer confidence with possible implications for economic recovery and President Bush's fate in the November election.

But the survey also contained discouraging news for the Bush Administration. The President appears to be the voters' choice by default, it indicates. If, by the end of the campaign, all the candidates seem equally qualified, 35% of those surveyed said they probably would vote for the incumbent, 27% said they are likely to support presumed Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, and 25% said they would favor a possible independent candidate, Texas businessman Ross Perot.

Most Americans do not believe Bush when he says he is a proponent of change, according to the poll. A majority of 53% said they have no confidence that conditions in the country would improve if Bush were reelected.

The survey shows that a majority also disagree with Bush on major policy issues:

* 62% want abortion laws to remain as they are, though a majority believe Bush disagrees with them.

* 82% want guaranteed federal health insurance, though a plurality of 47% believe Bush opposes this.

* 71% said they favor a middle-class tax cut, though only 35% think Bush supports it.

* 62% of Americans want higher taxes on imports. A plurality of 42% to 35% incorrectly believe Bush agrees with them.

There is also bad news for Clinton. Forty-two percent of respondents rate the Democratic challenger unfavorably, nearly double the percentage of those who rated Michael Dukakis unfavorably four years ago, at the same stage of his presidential campaign.

And the more people learn about Perot--at least since March--the more they like him. The Texas computer services magnate's favorable rating rose from 29% in March to 50% in April.

The survey interviewed 1,301 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. The results also could be distorted by the wording of the questions.

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