WASHINGTON -- In the latest sign of the public's hunger for a political outsider in the White House, a new national survey has found that a complete non-candidate, retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commands nearly as much voter power as presidential contender Ross Perot.
The poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press similarly shows that Americans are so fed up with traditional politicians and the institutions of Washington that they are willing to take a giant risk in this election year -- to sacrifice experience and ignore constitutional safeguards if it means strong leadership and change.
In this nationwide survey of 3,517 adults, undeclared candidate Mr. Perot leads with 36 percent support, compared with 31 percent for President Bush and 27 percent for Democrat Bill Clinton. In a hypothetical three-way race, the popular Desert Storm commander, undiscussed as a presidential candidate, is the favorite of 29 percent, ahead of the Arkansas governor at 27 percent but behind Mr. Bush at 35 percent.
The Schwarzkopf numbers suggest that much of the clamor for Mr. Perot is perhaps not so much support for the Texas billionaire as it is a call for change.
"It also suggests voters to be willing to consider lots of different alternatives at a time when they're not at all happy with the choices of the main parties," said Andrew Kohut, survey director at the Times Mirror center. "It's almost as bad news for Bush and Clinton as it is for Perot."
There is good news for Mr. Perot. The survey finds that the public's infatuation with him is growing even amid increasing press scrutiny.
Only 26 percent of those surveyed think of the undeclared candidate in an unfavorable light, the same percentage as did a month ago, while 53 percent think of him favorably, up from 50 percent. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans holding an unfavorable view of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton has increased for the third month in a row.
Likewise, Mr. Perot's appeal in a three-way test is growing -- the largest gains are among middle-income voters, those under 30 and independents -- while support for Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton is slipping.
"It's a very good sign for Ross Perot," said Mr. Kohut. "None of this [criticism] has stuck. It may not be the period in the election cycle when it sticks, but it shows people are focused on him and not on criticism of him."
People are also clearly focused on boldness and change -- at the expense of just about anything, including democratic institutions and the country's system of checks and balances. Even compared with the post-Watergate election of 1976, another time when political outsideness was appealing, people today are more inclined toward a strong leader who would solve problems directly "without worrying about how Congress and the Supreme Court would feel."
Today, 63 percent say they favor that kind of take-charge leader, with only 27 percent believing it "might be dangerous," according to the survey. In 1976, the country was more evenly divided: 49 percent wanted that kind of leader, while 44 percent feared it could be dangerous.
Similarly, 84 percent agree it is now "time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders," compared with 62 percent who felt that way five years ago.
The survey included an experiment. In the main survey -- in which Mr. Perot leads Mr. Bush by five percentage points -- those questioned about their preference among the three contenders were first asked about their choice in a two-way race, between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton.
In a separate survey with no preliminary question about a two-way race, support for Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot was nearly even.