WASHINGTON -- President Bush, continuing a steep slide from the heights in public opinion polls, would find himself in a dead heat if he were running for re-election today against an unnamed Democratic candidate, according to a new nationwide poll
However, in a race against Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, the Democrat most preferred by members of his own party, Bush still wins handily. Nonetheless, the new poll results reflect a significant erosion of the president's standing among voters -- apparently as a result of growing concern over his handling of the nation's troubled economy.
The survey, conducted by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, tested Bush against "the Democratic candidate" -- whoever it turns out to be -- and also against Cuomo.
The poll results, released yesterday, showed 43 percent of the respondents favoring "the Democratic candidate" and 41 percent supporting Bush. An unnamed candidate will usually do better than actual candidates because the unnamed candidate has no negative attributes.
This is the first time since his election in 1988 that the president has failed to beat an unnamed Democratic candidate in a trial heat.
In the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, he was favored to win over "the Democratic candidate" by 50 percentage points. As recently as a month ago, a Times Mirror poll found Bush favored over the opposition candidate by 55 percent to 37 percent.
The current survey is the latest in a series that has encouraged Democratic leaders, who once despaired of beating Bush. The new findings detailed Americans' increasing concern about domestic issues, especially unemployment and other economic problems. And they showed that voters give exceptionally low priority to foreign affairs, which have dominated the Bush presidency.
"This is the first time that Bush's re-election prospects appear directly threatened by the public's mounting unease at the country's economic prospects and the order of the Bush administration's priorities," said Donald S. Kellerman, director of the Times Mirror Center.
Only 34 percent of those polled said that they were "satisfied with the way things are going" in the country today, the lowest "state of the nation" reading since Times Mirror began recording it in 1986. At the height of Bush's campaign in October 1988, public satisfaction with the way things were going stood at 56 percent.
The changes appear to reflect voter disenchantment with the present state of the economy and with Bush rather than an active increase in enthusiasm for Democratic candidates. Despite faring no better than even in a face-off with an unnamed Democratic candidate, the president would be heavily favored -- 58 percent to 37 percent -- over Cuomo. Among Democrats polled, Cuomo was preferred as the party candidate by 30 percent. Former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California placed second with 18 percent, followed by the other announced candidates: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, 9 percent; Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, 8 percent; Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, 6 percent; Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, 5 percent; and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, 4 percent.