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Clinton's lead widening over GOP hopefuls in Md. Only Colin Powell, undeclared candidate, would beat him today


President Clinton has widened his lead in Maryland over any of the declared Republican candidates, including the GOP front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, according to a poll released yesterday.

Mr. Clinton, who came to Baltimore County for a fund-raiser last night, would lose to only one potential candidate, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the poll showed.

Though he is not a declared candidate, Mr. Powell has come out ahead in many polls around the country. Now on a tour to promote his recently published memoirs, Mr. Powell is expected to decide soon on a run for office.

Mr. Powell would beat Mr. Clinton by 51 percent to 35 percent, with 14 percent undecided, according to the poll. It was conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research of Columbia for The Sun and other news organizations.

"I think Powell's the wild card at this point," said Brad Coker, president of the polling firm. "If he gets in, he will have a major effect, both in terms of the Republican primary and in November."

The poll showed that while Mr. Clinton's personal popularity declined slightly over the past six months, he widened his lead over his declared Republican rivals.

If the election were held today, Mr. Clinton would beat Mr. Dole among Maryland voters, 47 percent to 38 percent, the poll found. Six months ago, Mr. Clinton led Mr. Dole by only 1 percentage point. In a matchup with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the president would win by 54 percent to 33 percent.

Political observers said it was too early to draw strong conclusions from the poll.

"I don't think the public has truly begun to focus on the presidential race yet," said Chris West, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "These are truly early snapshots."

For the poll, Mason-Dixon surveyed 821 registered Maryland voters -- 474 Democrats, 281 Republicans and 66 independents -- between Oct. 11 and Saturday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for questions that were asked of the entire sample. Margins of error are higher on questions asked of smaller groups, such as Republicans.

At a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser for the president last night in Pikesville, more than 300 Marylanders contributed about $300,000 to the Clinton/Gore '96 campaign, according to Alan L. Rifkin, a member of the host committee. The reception and dinner was held at the home of Michael G. Bronfein, president of NeighborCare Pharmacies Inc.

Mr. Clinton was welcomed by several elected officials including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who praised him for confronting the Republican "barbarians" with "moderation and consideration."

In his brief remarks, the president declared, "The best days of the country are ahead of us if we concentrate on four things: values, responsibility, opportunity and obligation to ourselves and to our country."

Maryland is considered a must-win state for Mr. Clinton's re-election effort.

On the Republican side, Mr. Dole has widened his lead in Maryland over Mr. Gramm.

Without Mr. Powell in the race, Mr. Dole leads Mr. Gramm by 41 percent to 16 percent, compared with an edge of 42 percent to 22 percent six months ago. Political commentator Pat Buchanan was third with 9 percent. Another 27 percent said they were undecided.

Mr. Powell would beat Mr. Dole 31 percent to 28 percent in a primary, with Mr. Gramm coming in third with 12 percent. Only 16 percent said they were undecided when asked about a primary that included Mr. Powell.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who is mentioned as a possible candidate, was supported by only 11 percent of those polled in a race against the declared Republican candidates.

In the past six months, the percentage of Maryland voters giving Mr. Clinton a favorable rating fell from 49 percent to 43 percent.

During that time, though, Mr. Clinton's unfavorable rating fell slightly while those for Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm rose.

Mr. West acknowledged that Republicans have suffered in the past six months as the GOP-led Congress has pushed controversial budget cuts and Mr. Clinton has mostly stayed out of the fight.

"There's lots of pulling and tugging in the Congress as the Republicans' legislative package is put together," Mr. West said.

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