Gingrich's vault to top has cost him with voters

March 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

BROOMALL, Pa. -- Speaker Newt Gingrich may be revered by Republicans on Capitol Hill, but polls suggest that his high profile has carried a price among voters.

At the Kmart here in this solidly Republican suburb outside Philadelphia, even people who said they liked the speaker were leery of him.

"He's entertaining, he speaks his mind, he makes politics interesting," said Chuck Towne, a 61-year-old sales representative who identified himself as a Republican. "But I don't think he's good for the country."

Another Republican, Twila Emuryan, a 48-year-old nurse, was less entertained. "I think he's using his situation as speaker of the House to his own personal advantage," she said. "I don't think he understands life. He wants to stop supporting the food program for schools. Why starve the kids? And welfare. You just can't pull the plug on everyone."

Such views reflect the findings in the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll that not only is the 51-year-old Georgian unpopular outside Washington but also that women react far more negatively to him than do men.

The views illustrate what a bad first impression Mr. Gingrich has made since he grabbed the political spotlight after the November elections. This shows up not only in national surveys but also in the comments heard in a place like Broomall, an overwhelmingly Republican suburb that stuck with George Bush 1992 even as neighboring Republican towns went Democratic.

Mr. Gingrich's negative ratings surpass those of almost every other contemporary political figure.

The Times poll, conducted by telephone last month among 1,190 adults around the country, found that 22 percent viewed him positively and 33 percent negatively; the rest had no opinion. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month found that 27 percent viewed him positively and 41 percent negatively.

In every region of the country, according to the Times survey, more people thought badly of Mr. Gingrich than thought well of him.

"I don't think there's ever been anyone who's become so unpopular so fast without being a mass murderer," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "It's unparalleled."

To be sure, some voters here appreciate Mr. Gingrich's drive.

"He's making a difference down there, relative to what we had before," said James Bryan, 70, a retired chemical engineer. "I'm more encouraged about Congress, although I'm not sympathetic all" to the "Contract with America," the House GOP agenda, set by Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich's press secretary, Tony Blankley, has attributed intense reaction to Mr. Gingrich in part to a peculiar confluence of events: When Mr. Gingrich became the first Republican speaker in 40 years, he was instantly subjected to presidential-level scrutiny by the news media without the benefit of a presidential campaign to introduce himself first on his own terms.

Mr. Mellman, the Democratic pollster, puts it differently: "He burst onto the scene, apparently with enormous power, and nobody knew him. Then he has these scary ideas, and he communicates them in a scary way. His tone is strident and aggressive and dismissive. There is anger in his voice."

Unlike the language of most politicians, Mr. Gingrich's is memorable. But that cuts both ways. Voters remember his suggestion that children of teen-agers on welfare could be placed in orphanages. Mostly, said one man here, who would not give his name, the speaker simply talks too much and too fast. "He's too much mouth," the man said.

In an interview, Mr. Gingrich attributed his low marks from the voters to his continuing inability to adjust his public persona to their expectations of a leader, particularly one who, after the vice president, is next in line to the presidency itself.

"No one I know of in modern times has gone from being a backbencher to being this much in the center of things in that short a time," he said. "And some of the stuff I mishandled. I said controversial things that probably at this level I shouldn't have. I occasionally got into fights that probably at this level I shouldn't have."

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