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Poll indicates caution toward GOP's program


WASHINGTON -- After the Republicans' 100-day legislative bonanza, most Americans remain dissatisfied with the state of the nation and are thirsting for greater leadership from President Clinton, according to a new poll.

Many people say they are happy that the Republicans won control of Congress, according to the poll by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press. But like a new suitor who may be moving too far, too fast, the Republicans who pushed their agenda through the House with lightning speed are engendering a wariness about their intentions.

"People are increasingly unhappy with Republicans," Andrew Kohut, survey director for Times Mirror, which publishes The Sun and other newspapers, said in an interview yesterday. "But they aren't materially more happy with Clinton, except to say, 'Let's hear from you.' "

Indeed, the poll reports that Mr. Clinton has been so overshadowed by Republicans that most Americans believe that both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole are more powerful and influential than the president. Even a majority of Democrats believe Mr. Gingrich is more powerful than Mr. Clinton.

An increasing number of people -- mostly Democrats, the elderly and the poor -- want Mr. Clinton to take a bigger lead in solving the nation's problems. A few weeks ago, the public was evenly divided over whether the president or the Republican leaders in Congress should set the agenda. Now, 48 percent would like to see the president take the reins. Only 36 percent want the Republican leaders to do so.

"The Democrats are really crying for leadership," Mr. Kohut said. "They're galvanized in a way they weren't in '94. It gives Clinton an opportunity to get out and lead the troops and show the flag -- the Democratic flag."

Dissatisfaction with both the Republicans and Mr. Clinton is also manifested in greater support for the formation of a third party, with 57 percent favoring the idea, up from 53 percent in July.

The nationwide poll of 1,800 adults, conducted April 6-9, shows Mr. Clinton's approval rating rising slightly, from 44 percent in March, to 47 percent, its highest point since January 1994. The disapproval rating remained about the same, 43 percent.

Opinions about Mr. Gingrich mirror the public's wariness with the Republicans. Although the speaker's approval rating has risen from 38 percent to 43 percent since mid-February, his disapproval rating has increased more sharply, from 29 percent to 42 percent.

Mr. Dole, the front-runner for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, fares better, with 59 percent expressing approval of his job performance, up from 45 percent in February, and 25 percent expressing disapproval, up from 19 percent earlier this year.

The poll found the Republicans' image was bolstered by their leadership in Congress, with 42 percent -- an all-time high -- lTC believing the GOP is the party best able to handle the nation's top problem. And by 49 percent to 30 percent, Americans believe that Republicans are better able to manage the federal government than the Democrats.

But the survey also found that, by a margin of 49 to 39 percent, Americans believe the Democrats care about them more.

What's more, about as many people now disapprove of the Republicans' policies and proposals (43 percent) as approve (44 percent). In December 1994, fresh from the Republican election victory, those policies seemed more appealing, with 52 percent approving and 28 percent disapproving. Many of the independent, or swing, voters, who could be crucial in the 1996 elections, are either divided over Republican policies or disapprove of them.

In their defense, Republicans say that the breakneck speed with which they pushed through their agenda did not allow them to adequately explain it to the public.

But Mr. Kohut believes the public's unease with Republican policies is also due to the fact that many Americans favor the Republicans' big-picture ideas, like a balanced budget and tax cuts, but are critical of some social initiatives that have been suggested, like restoring the ban on gays in the military and cutting funding for public broadcasting.

The Republican plan to replace the federal school-lunch program with block grants to the states evokes one of the most negative responses, with the public disapproving by a margin of 58 percent to 35 percent.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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