NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Finishing a Chinese lunch at one of the approximately 4,296 shopping malls that pave New Jersey, David Skolnik hands down his verdict on President Clinton and the long-running controversy over campaign finance.
"I'm a Democrat and always have been," he says, "but this story about the videotapes is the last straw. I figured this was just the Republicans picking on the Democrats and, you know, vice versa, but this is fishy. There's something on those tapes they don't want us to know about."
Mr. Skolnik, an accountant who retired last year at 75, is particularly worried about Vice President Al Gore. "I liked his father," he says of the vice president. "When he was in the Senate there, he was a stand-up guy, so I had high hopes for young Albert. Now I think he's probably rolling in that Clinton mud puddle."
Mr. Skolnik is not the only voter in New Jersey who has been brought up short by the belated "discovery" of the videotapes of White House coffees for big contributors to the 1996 campaign. Ellen Meighan, who runs a driving school, is another Democrat asking questions.
"Mr. Clinton says there's nothing on the tapes," she says, "but if that's true, why did they hide them so long? And what about the other ones we haven't seen? I hate to say it, but it reminds me of Watergate. I remember how Nixon tried to hold back those tapes month after month."
The voters who show any serious concern about the campaign finance debate still make up a minority.
Conversations with 27 New Jerseyans chosen at random find that most have little if any interest in anything going on in Washington.
The response of Eli Saintz, a painting contractor, is close to typical. "They're all a bunch of crooks," he says. "It doesn't matter if they change the law or not. They'll find a way to get around it."
But there are suggestions in recent polling data that there is at least a growing minority of voters with some concern about the campaign finance issue -- a group that includes 10 of those questioned in this totally unscientific sample.
A lesson to be drawn from their responses is that the videotapes episode has been, as David Skolnik put it, the last straw.
"I'm a good Republican," says lawyer Marty Tolliver, waiting in a hardware store checkout line, "but I held my nose and voted for Clinton last year because [Bob] Dole was so out of the picture. But now I'm sorry because Clinton's so arrogant he thinks we're going to buy this story. He keeps saying it was his staff, but he's the one who needs the protection."
A woman of a certain age who asked that her name not be used chimed in: "There's getting to be just too much of this kind of thing, just one thing after another. I liked Clinton and I guess he's been a pretty good president, but I don't believe all these stories about how they just found this and just found that. He reminds me of the way my second husband used to sound when he was lying through his teeth."
There is, of course, nothing unusual about finding voters who are skeptical about their political leaders. Other similar random surveys earlier this year found plenty of that. The difference now is that the skepticism is more directly focused on President Clinton than on politicians in general.
At another shopping mall, Dita Reiner, who sells perfume, puts it this way: "I liked Clinton all along. He's an attractive guy and if he was a little out of line sometimes, that was all right with me. But this is just too much. Now they're going to blame some clerk for losing those videotapes when the president is the one responsible."
There is no broad understanding among these voters about the legal and ethical questions posed by fund raising in the White House and only a vague consensus that Mr. Clinton apparently went overboard in raising soft money -- whatever that means -- last year. But the notion that the president may be trying to cover up something illegal is one everyone can grasp.
As Sophie Skolnik, David's wife, said, "There's something back there that isn't going to look so great in the history books."
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/10/97