WASHINGTON -- Despite a foul economy and rumblings of discontent within his own party, President Bush enters the 1992 campaign with a number of important advantages, including a residue of good feelings from the Persian Gulf war and strong support from younger voters, according to a new national poll.
The survey, conducted one year before the election, found that the recession is straining the coalition that elected Mr. Bush in 1988. Not since the economic downturn of the early 1980s has the public been so dissatisfied with the state of the nation.
But while his poll ratings have dropped to the lowest point of his presidency, Mr. Bush may be shielded from political disaster by the positive sentiment that lingers from the gulf war. There appears to be a strong connection between feelings about the war and positive attitudes toward Mr. Bush, even among those who express dissatisfaction with the course of the nation.
The Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations were particularly popular with younger voters and disgruntled Republicans, according to the poll commissioned by the Times Mirror Co., which publishes The Sun and other newspapers.
Nonetheless, by a 2-to-1 margin Americans say they are not satisfied with the way things are going in the country at this time.
Financially stressed middle-class whites who supported Mr. Bush last time because of his conservative position on social issues such as abortion are the most discontented voters of all, according to the survey. A clear majority of working-class Republicans -- 58 percent -- said they are worse off today than they were four years ago.
Mr. Bush will have to fight for the support of these voters in next year's Republican primaries. These disaffected conservatives are likely to be prime targets of Louisiana state Representative -- David Duke, who is expected to announce his presidential candidacy today in Washington, and columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, who plans to announce next week.
The Democratic presidential candidates are also building their case for the support of America's "forgotten middle class." But in doing so, they will have to overcome negative images of their own party and Mr. Bush's successes in foreign policy, the poll suggests.
The survey also indicated that Mr. Bush could benefit from a continuing trend away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans. The two parties are now basically even when Americans are asked to identify themselves politically. Going into the 1988 election, the Democrats held a 7-percentage-point edge.
In a further sign of the president's underlying strength, Mr. Bush came out ahead in a hypothetical test between himself and a leading Democrat. When Mr. Bush was matched against an unnamed Democrat, the result was a virtual tie. But when the name of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was introduced as the nominee, Mr. Bush came out ahead by a lopsided 58 percent to 37 percent.
The telephone survey of 2,020 adult Americans had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. It was conducted Oct. 31-Nov. 10, as Mr. Bush's poll ratings began a slide that continued at least through the end of last month.
L Other significant findings of the Times Mirror poll include:
* Anti-government sentiment is rising fastest among older Americans, who are also more likely to vote than younger ones.
* More than three out of four Americans say it is time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders, and a majority says it is "generally bored by what goes on in Washington."
* The desire for political change could benefit female candidates. When Americans were asked to rate three pairs of hypothetical candidates, each consisting of one man and one woman, the woman came out ahead every time.
* White Americans are increasingly aware that the lives of black Americans have not really improved in the past few years.