Campaign '96 / THE ELECTORATE : 'Focus Group' Provides Gloomy Picture for Clinton and Dole : Sampling of middle-class voters reveals a consensus on nation's problems, but doubts about whether either candidate can provide the solutions.

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

"When you think of Bob Dole," the interviewer asks, "what quality do you most admire?"

There's an uncomfortable silence around the table of voters, even from confirmed Republicans who say they will vote for Dole in November if he is their party's nominee.

"Well," photo lab owner Joe Petrovec finally ventures, "he's been around Washington a long time. I would consider that a plus, but you could also consider it a minus."

President Clinton doesn't fare much better: "Four years that should have been years of change . . . but weren't," sighs Paula Santos, a disappointed Democrat.

"The problem is, it's going to be another four years of the same old thing," complains Ron Breuer, a laborer who says he can't decide which way to vote. "It's just the lesser of two evils."

An evening with largely middle-class voters in New Jersey provides an intriguing mirror of this year's American electorate: deeply worried about the country's direction--and dissatisfied with both major parties' likely presidential candidates.

No matter how they vote or what they do for a living, these two dozen Americans of every race and creed came to a quick, emphatic consensus on the country's fundamental problems: The nation's morals are sliding downhill, the economy isn't providing enough good jobs and the political system isn't working.

In two "focus group" sessions this week designed to plumb the concerns of ordinary people, they said they were looking for a candidate who would tackle these basic ills, and were willing to listen to Clinton and Dole but doubted that either one can fill the bill.

"I'm going to vote for Dole, but . . . I don't think it matters who is president," said Republican housewife Michele Jabin. "The whole political system won't change."

Was there anyone out there who could do the job? asked Peter Hart, the pollster running the discussion.

"Steve Forbes," one man offered.

Ross Perot? Hart asked.

No, the New Jerseyans answered. "Hot air," one sad.

Colin Powell?

Yes, they replied in their first show of enthusiasm.

"He's honest enough to run just on his honesty," Santos said.

Clinton, however, has a problem persuading voters that he deserves a second chance; Dole has a problem persuading them that he has a plan for the country.

"There was a short breath of fresh air when [Clinton] was just elected," said Ric Miller, a music store owner. "Then he just became political."

"The guy has good intentions; he just doesn't go through with them," added Jesus Silva, a commercial illustrator.

As for Dole, even his own supporters are restless about the lack of definition in his campaign.

"I'm going to vote for the guy," said John Hawk, a retired automobile worker. "But I don't know if Dole is going to show me anything."

Hart said the focus group reveals something more important than where Clinton and Dole stand in a "horse race" matchup: Neither one has yet succeeded in appealing to the roughly 20% of voters in the middle who haven't made up their minds.

"If this is a race toward a finish line, the answer isn't who's ahead by a neck," Hart said. "The answer is: Both candidates have a long way to go."

"Bob Dole hasn't established himself," he added. "People don't feel they know who he is. . . . They say, 'Well, he's an old person who has experience.' They talk about that as a positive factor in that it may mean he could be effective.

"But it also poses a problem [for Dole]. All these people say they want change. But Dole can't offer himself as the agent of change; he has to be the agent of stability."

Indeed, when voters are asked for their impressions of Dole, stability, experience--and age--are the factors that come up.

If Dole was a member of her family, one woman says, he would be the grandfather.

"Elder statesman," offered Keith Aslin, a police officer and a registered Democrat who says he plans to vote for the Kansas senator.

Dole's age (72) seemed to worry a broad cross-section of voters, both Republican and Democrat.

"I'm 65, and I know how I feel when I get up in the morning," said Petrovec, a Dole supporter. "There are days when I don't want to do a dang thing. You lose a certain amount of enthusiasm."

So it will be important, several said, whom Dole chooses as his running mate.

"If he can somehow talk Colin Powell into running for vice president, that changes the whole thing," Aslin suggested.

Aha, thought Hart: a trend in the making? "How many Clinton voters would change your votes to Dole if Powell were his running mate?" he asked.

Only one man raised his hand.

Some of the other impressions of Dole were unflattering: "unbending," said one voter. An "iceman," said another.

Clinton's name, meanwhile, prompted a more polarized, more vivid series of adjectives: "intelligent" and "likable," but also "slick" and "waffler."

Nothing grandfatherly about the president: He's a "brother-in-law," declared one Republican, prompting knowing laughter around the table.

Democrats gave him credit for standing firm against Republican budget-cutters in the ongoing battle over the federal budget, but they also expressed exasperation at his failure to get more done.

Several confessed to being troubled by the Whitewater affair, the allegations that money related to a failed real estate investment in Arkansas improperly benefited Clinton.

"There's always the odor of scandal," complained Miller.

"When is he telling the truth and when is it all a big show?" added Breuer.

And some, like Silva, said they worried about the president's appearance of indecisiveness, especially on foreign policy.

"I don't think Dole would back down as easily as Clinton," he said.

Catherine Gattuso, a jewelry saleswoman, looked up in surprise. "You're swaying me!" she said. "I'm starting to think Dole is a good candidate!"

The focus group was sponsored by the nonprofit organization Campaign for America, which is trying to spark interest in campaign reforms.

But while these voters all agreed that reforms were needed, they were mostly at a loss for suggestions--and deeply skeptical that anything could work.

"Eliminate lobbying!" declared Susana Hernandez, a technical writer.

"Give [the candidates] $150, and tell them: 'Do the best you can,' " suggested Shirley Ducatman, a retired school librarian.

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In a Word . . .

In a recent survey, pollsters for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked 1,500 adults if they could think of a single-word description for several political figures. What follows are the 10 descriptions most frequently given for President Clinton, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and GOP political rival, Patrick J. Buchanan. The number next to each word represents the percentage of people who mentioned that adjective.

*--*

CLINTON DOLE BUCHANAN 1. Good (38) Old (66) Extreme (35) 2. Trying (27) Conservative (31) Radical (27) 3. OK (20) Too old (22) Conservative (18) 4. Fair (14) Good (16) Ultraconservative (18) 5. Honest (11) OK (14) Good (15) 6. Wishy-washy (11) Honest (13) Racist (12) 7. Leader (10) Dislike (12) OK (11) 8. Liberal (10) Fair (9) Scary (11) 9. Dishonest (9) Arrogant (8) Fair (9) 10. Great (9) Experienced (8) Distrust (8)

*--*

Note: Numbers add up to more than 100% because more than one answer was accepted. Margin of sampling error plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

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