Washington -- POLLSTERS ARE like the positive-thinking farmer who sees fertilizer in the barnyard where the city slicker only sees manure. They can find what best serves their interest from whatever polling numbers are available. The latest example is an exercisehered jointly. Each found in the same results reasons to be optimistic about their own party's chances of victory.
Tarrance and Associates, the Republican group, and Greenberg-Lake, the Democratic, together surveyed 1,000 registered voters and agreed on several key points. Among them were that the role of government will be a central voting issue in the next decade, and that health care in particular will be a critical battleground between the parties.
What the two firms concluded from the same data, however, was markedly different in major areas. Ed Goeas, president of the GOP pollsters, found grounds to say his party and President Bush were in such good shape that the only question was whether they would hold onto their current grip of the voters' confidence or "build a longer lasting majority, which is certainly within their grasp."
Celinda Lake, partner in the Democratic firm, professed to see the ingredients for a Democratic upset in 1992, once a candidate or candidates surface to give voice to the message she thinks can win.
Goeas based his conclusions in part on the fact that even after a recession, and with 47 percent of those polled saying the country "is on the wrong track," Bush remains at an impressive 72 percent in job approval. Lake cited the same 47 percent as a black eye for Bush coming despite "the improving economy" and the success the gulf war.
Goeas pointed to these findings as reasons for Republican optimism:
* Voters by 34 percent to 27 percent think Republicans deal better with the most important problem facing the country, judged by most to be the economy.
* They think, by 23 percent to 18 percent, they will be better off financially a year from now.
* They favor, by 44 percent to 27 percent electing a Republican president over a Democratic in 1992, and by 52-28, the re-election of George Bush over an unnamed Democrat.
* They would vote, by 48 percent to 37 percent, for a Republican over a Democrat for Congress.
* They rate Republicans better, by 50-24, in "holding taxes down," by 41 percent to 30 percent in "handling the nation's economy," and by 43-25 in "keeping America prosperous."
In all these categories, when President Bush was matched against the Democratic-controlled Congress, he fared even better than his party did. But Lake had numbers to argue that there was hope for the Democratic nominee in 1992:
* Only 30 percent said yes when asked whether they would vote to re-elect Bush "no matter who ran against him."
* Some 44 percent said they favored government guaranteeing "a decent standard of living for everyone;" only 18 percent who wanted government to "do as little as possible to interfere into the lives of people."
* A clear plurality agreed that "not enough attention is being paid to the middle class, which is being squeezed to pay for tax breaks for the rich" -- a prime Democratic argument against Bush.
* By 45 percent to 33 percent, Republicans hurt the economy more by not investing in education, health care and the environment than Democrats hurt it by higher taxes and government spending.
* By 51-24, Democrats can do a better job protecting social security, and by 52-21 improving health care. Goeas and Lake agreed that health care can become "the social security issue of the 1990s" if the Democrats sharpen their proposals and the Republicans fail to counter them with attractive alternatives.
* By 48 percent to 21 percent, Democrats could do a better job "resisting the influence of big special interests." The Republicans throughout the Reagan-Bush years have been very successful at labeling the Democrats as captives of special interests.
Goeas, with Bush at 72 percent popularity, was unruffled by all these findings, but Lake saw in them reasons for Democratic optimism. Which only goes to show that in polling as in life, if you look hard enough you can always find a silver lining.