Race tightening as Clinton slips and Perot gains Poll shows gap faced by Bush starting to shrink

October 25, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The 1992 presidential campaign is enterin its home stretch with Ross Perot newly energized and Gov. Bill Clinton still in the lead but facing a tightening contest with President Bush, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The new poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, suggests that Mr. Perot received a considerable boost from his performance in the presidential debates and his weeks of heavy advertising.

It indicates that Mr. Clinton's support has dropped since early in the month and that Republican attacks on his trustworthiness may be taking a toll. Mr. Bush's support, however, was not growing, according to the poll.

The upshot is a tighter race. Among the probable electorate, which reflects the likelihood of each respondent's voting on Nov. 3, Mr. Clinton now has the support of 40 percent, Mr. Bush of 35 percent and Mr. Perot of 15 percent, the poll shows.

Early this month, before the debates, Mr. Clinton stood at 46 percent, Mr. Bush at 38 percent and Mr. Perot at 7 percent.

A Washington Post poll published yesterday showed a Clinton lead of 8 percentage points, while a Time magazine/CNN poll released this weekend showed a gap of 7 percentage points.

The Times/CBS poll, based on interviews with 1,854 adults nationwide, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, which means that statistically it is in the range of the other polls.

Bush campaign officials, elated over signs in such polls that Mr. Clinton's substantial lead was eroding, predicted that voters were entering a new phase of decision-making that would put a premium on trust. "It's moving our way," said Charles Black, senior adviser to the Bush campaign.

But Clinton strategists disputed the Times/CBS poll, noting that other independent surveys, while showing a closer race than before, did not show a gap as small as 5 percentage points.

"I never question somebody's polls," said James Carville, senior strategist for Mr. Clinton. "But this is the first private or public poll with a margin like this."

Mr. Carville added, "The race is going to tighten. I don't think there's any question about that. I just think we've got to work hard coming down the stretch."

Paradoxically, registered voters seem to be operating under the assumption that the election is over, with six in 10 expecting a Clinton victory on Election Day, according to the Times/CBS poll.

To some analysts, this suggests that some recent supporters of Mr. Perot may be exercising a "free vote," sending a message by backing him because they think neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Clinton needs their vote.

Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic poll taker, argued, "Once there was this sense of inevitability associated with Clinton's election, voters could start to be for Perot without any sense of risk to it. You could be for Perot without having to worry about electing a president, or without having to worry about electing George Bush president."

xTC Still, Mr. Perot has undergone a remarkable image-building since he re-entered the race. Twenty-nine percent now say they view Mr. Perot favorably, while 32 percent see him unfavorably. Early this month, only 7 percent viewed him favorably, while 59 percent held unfavorable views.

The debates were a clear boost to Mr. Perot, many analysts said, operating as a kind of mini-convention reintroducing him to the U.S. electorate. Thirty-nine percent said Mr. Clinton won the three presidential debates, but 31 percent said Mr. Perot did. Only 15 percent said Mr. Bush won.

Mr. Bush, for his part, continues to have many vulnerabilities. His job approval rating stands at 40 percent among all adults, and 77 percent continued to rate the economy as bad or very bad, findings that showed little change during the fall.

But his favorable ratings improved slightly among registered voters this month, now standing at 35 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable.

Mr. Clinton was acquiring a more negative image, reflecting Republican attempts to raise doubts about his character and suitability as a potential president: 33 percent now view him favorably, 39 percent unfavorably. And the proportion who say he is not telling the truth about the draft is rising.

Mr. Bush retains and has even enlarged his advantage in being able to "handle all the problems a president has to deal with," a major theme of the Bush campaign. But Mr. Clinton retains strong advantages in other areas, such as "caring about the needs and problems of people like you," which 65 percent said he did, while 48 percent said Mr. Bush did.

Still, the most intriguing variable in this race, nine days before the election, is Mr. Perot. Both campaigns are paying less attention to Mr. Perot's standing nationally than to his impact in specific states. He is considered to be a help to the Democrats in the South and a problem for them in the industrial Midwest.

Republicans acknowledge their daunting challenge in assembling a majority in the Electoral College.

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