WASHINGTON -- "Scared to death" is replacing "mad as hell" as the dominant mood of the country, a new national poll suggests.
A growing number of Americans say they're worried that they won't have the money to pay their medical bills, housing costs, children's college expenses or provide for their own retirement, according to an in-depth opinion survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and The Press.
The study, conducted as the 1996 campaign gathers steam, also indicates that the Republican coalition is fragmenting, as voter support for the Republican-led Congress sinks and President Clinton's approval ratings rise.
The white male voter, whose anger was a driving force behind the Republican victory in last year's congressional elections, is now divided over the policies of the GOP Congress and more favorably disposed to President Clinton than he was a year ago, the poll found.
Economic anxiety is especially pronounced among other key groups of voters who have swung behind the GOP in recent years, including younger and middle-aged women with average incomes and some former supporters of Ross Perot's independent presidential candidacy.
Those groups are overwhelmingly against the agenda of the Republican Congress, the survey found.
"The public's anxiety level over a whole range of issues central to their lives is considerably higher now than it was in 1994, and dramatically higher than it was in 1988," concludes the authors of the study, to be released today by Times Mirror, which owns The Sun and other newspapers.
In the ten months since the Republicans took over Congress, more people have become unhappy with what they regard as politics as usual in Washington, and their attitudes toward both major parties have turned more negative.
Congress now gets a lower rating from the public than it did before last year's elections, and the honeymoon that greeted the new Republican majority is gone. The 54-37 percent favorable rating of last February is now an unfavorable rating of 42-55.
Asked to name the biggest threat to their personal future, half of those surveyed said the government, with the news media a distant second.
Overall, the poll found that three out of every four Americans are dissatisfied with the general direction of the country.
That discontent appears to be an outgrowth of their private fears about the health care system, the economy, crime, the political system and what they regard as excessive taxation, the study concludes.
Americans are also less satisfied with the amount of money they earn and more nervous about their future financial security. Even though the economy has improved over the last three years, most Americans (three out of every five) complain that they don't make enough money to live the kind of life they want, the poll indicated.
Perhaps the most dramatic shifts in public opinion revolve around the issue of health care, in direct response to the debate in Congress over the future of Medicare, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center.
Two out of every three Americans now say that they are "very worried" that they will not be able to pay the medical bills if a family member gets sick, a number that has risen sharply over the past 18 months.
"Republicans who are anxious about paying health care costs are significantly less likely to approve of GOP policies," the study found.
At the same time, health care reform has rebounded to the top of the public's agenda, along with balancing the budget and the economy, when people are asked what the top issue of next year's campaign should be.
"It has to do with the fact that the pink-slip recovery keeps going and the budget debate has scared people," Mr. Kohut said.
In the survey, conducted during the last week of October, Congress gets the largest share of the blame for the nation's problems, while Mr. Clinton is largely overlooked.
Surprisingly, many of those surveyed who were dissatisfied with the direction of the country (27 percent) blame "the people themselves" for the nation's problems, a point of view that is especially pronounced among those under age 30.
As the country heads into the 1996 elections, public approval for the job Mr. Clinton is doing continues to rise (to 48 percent in the Times Mirror poll and even higher in more recent surveys). So, too, has support for an independent candidacy (the poll was conducted before Colin L. Powell decided not to enter the presidential race).
Meantime, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he'll announce soon whether he will join the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, continues to turn off most voters.
Fully 70 percent of those surveyed said there was "no chance" they would vote for him. By contrast, only 44 percent said there was no way they'd vote for Mr. Clinton.
"The Democrats can base an entire re-election strategy on confrontation with Gingrich," said Mr. Kohut.
"The president looks good when he takes on Gingrich."