WASHINGTON -- The most intriguing finding in the new CBS News-New York Times opinion poll is not the news that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has regained a 16-point lead over President Bush. Instead, it is the evidence that the Republicans' use of the red herring issue of "family values" isn't fooling the electorate.
The Republican National Convention at Houston was structured around that issue, so it was credited with much of the "bounce" of 10 percent to 12 percent that Bush enjoyed in surveys made immediately after the convention ended. Now the fresh figures suggest that once the voters took a sober second look, many of them realized they were being conned.
In the new survey, voters were asked how much time candidates "should spend talking about" various issues, the first option being "a lot." The poll found 92 percent thought "a lot" of attention should be paid to the economy and 90 percent said the same about the health-care problem but only 49 percent cited "traditional family values" and only 23 percent gay rights. In short, the Republican attempt to divert attention from the central concerns of the electorate has fallen flat.
It would be a mistake, of course, to read too much into a single opinion poll. Political history is replete with examples of rapid swings in public interest in particular issues and feelings about individual candidates. But the figures do suggest that the strategy Bush used against Michael S. Dukakis four years ago may not work this time.
Bush entered the 1988 campaign carrying relatively high negatives and clearly trailing the Massachusetts governor at midsummer. His solution was to use emotional issues -- the prison furlough program and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag -- to simultaneously drive up the negative attitudes toward Dukakis while reducing his own. It worked like a charm as Dukakis failed to respond.
This time the focus on "family values" is intended to remind everyone that Bill Clinton has had "difficulties" in his marriage and was accused of a longtime affair. It is a way for the Republicans to make their point about the Democratic nominee without making the kind of specific charges that could backfire against them. George Bush and Dan Quayle, we are being told, are all for the Little League, church on Sunday and putting the word "God" in the party platform. Who knows what those liberal Democrats do with their spare time?
But the Republicans are fighting the last war. This time there is an issue of genuine substance on the table, the condition of the economy, and Bush's record in dealing with that issue is politically disastrous. The new poll found only 17 percent of voters approving of the way the president has handled the economy, 75 percent who disapprove.
The Bush strategists know all that, which is why there has been so much balder-- about the way people lead their private lives. But because of the history of Willie Horton and the flag in 1988, the voters appear more resistant to diversions and negative politics. In a sense, Bush is paying a price for his success four years ago.
This doesn't mean that the "family values" offensive doesn't have some political sting in some places. In the next week or two you can expect to see new polls showing Bush now leading Clinton in states with large populations of the religious right, including Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi and perhaps several others. And that, in turn, will give the Bush campaign something of a lift in the business of creating favorable atmospherics for its candidate.
It is also true that there are so-called personal issues that can be used effectively against Clinton with some voters.
His history in avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam is clearly one of those and will be exploited fully -- and legitimately -- by the Republicans.
How Clinton handles that issue in debates could be critical to his campaign.
But it is also already clear, now that the glow of Houston has faded, that voters who are worried about their jobs are not easily beguiled by the premise that George Bush and Dan Quayle should be returned to office for another four years because they represent traditional family values. We are, after all, electing a president, not a pastor.