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Polls say no candidate has lock on the election


WASHINGTON -- The message in the opinion polls taken on the heels of the Republican convention is that both President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton have been given wake-up calls.

On the one hand, Mr. Clinton's lead dropped from a range of 17 to more than 20 percentage points before the convention to a range of 8 to 14 percentage points thereafter in polls conducted for leading newspapers, television networks and news magazines. In short, there clearly was a "bounce" for Mr. Bush, although its dimensions varied substantially from one survey to the next.

There was one survey made Thursday for CBS News and The New York Times that showed Mr. Bush trailing by only 2 points, TC meaning in a dead heat statistically. But that poll was a single-day sample of only 500 respondents, some of whom were questioned as they watched the president deliver his acceptance speech, and thus was widely dismissed by both Republicans and Democrats.

For the Clinton campaign, the lesson in most of the polls was that those gaudy leads Mr. Clinton has been enjoying in the last few weeks have been inflated by voters far from prepared to make a hard commitment to either candidate and often swayed by something as superficial as the amount of television exposure a candidate is given. As Peter Hart, a Democrat who does surveys for The Wall Street Journal, put it: "When only half the voters are locked into a candidate, it only has to be a 2.3 on the Richter scale, any little tremor moves things a little bit."

At the same time, the post-convention surveys continued to show Mr. Bush extremely vulnerable on the critical "internals" -- that is, measures the poll-takers and political professionals take most seriously. When voters are asked, for example, who would do a better job dealing with the economy, twice as many name the Democratic candidate as the president. On the standard question of whether the country is "headed in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track," more than 70 percent still say the latter, a finding that is usually the prescription for disaster for an incumbent.

Linda DiVall, a Republican poll-taker, argued that the bounce for Mr. Bush coming in the face of the negative "wrong track" finding demonstrates that "people are not holding George Bush responsible for everything that's wrong." And she noted that the negatives of both the Democratic Congress and Mr. Clinton, the prime targets at Houston, rose in the post-convention surveys.

At the same time, the polls found only a modest rise in the approval ratings for Mr. Bush's performance in office and a consistent view that he is more concerned with the wealthy than "people like you and me."

In fact, political professionals tend to dismiss the significance of most polls taken early in a campaign because they recognize that most voters are not paying much attention to the campaign and that respondents are thus being obliged to make a choice that they are not prepared to make. What matters, they argue, is the overall trend.

Mr. Hart said, for instance, that he puts the most weight on surveys taken around July 4, meaning after the primary season is over and essentially out of the news, and again around Labor Day, when voters begin to pay more attention. "If you look at those two, you know where you came in and where you came out, and what happened in the funny house doesn't matter," he said.

But the findings do matter in some ways. A candidate leading in the opinion polls always finds it easier to raise money, as Mr. Clinton has discovered in paying off his primary campaign deficit this summer. And party activists and officeholders are always looking for a winner. Thus, for example, the Clinton campaign is finding local Democrats vying to appear with him on campaign platforms since he established a clear lead over Mr. Bush.

The campaign also has reached the point at which individual state polls will be watched with far closer attention than minor changes in national surveys. Some of the state polls taken before the Republican convention -- showing Mr. Clinton ahead in such Republican strongholds as Florida, South Carolina and Virginia -- were never taken seriously as forecasts of the future. The expectation now is that the next round of state polls will show Mr. Bush leading in such states.

In short, the "bounce" from the Houston convention has brought assessments of the campaign back to the real world. Mr. Clinton is clearly ahead right now but just as obviously not out of the president's range.

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