WASHINGTON -- Political professionals understand that it is always risky to pay too much attention to public opinion polls, particularly when they are taken this early in a campaign. They are too volatile to be considered reliable predictors of voter behavior.
There are, nonetheless, inferences that can be drawn from the numbers, and some of those messages from the fine print speak loudly about what's really happening in the campaign.
The latest New York Times-CBS News survey showed, for example, the leading contender for the Republican nomination, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, slipping a little against his chief rival within the party, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, and in match-ups against the two leading Democrats, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley.
None of that should come as a great surprise. Mr. Bush was going along at such an extravagantly high level in the polls that the contests for the nomination and the general election were certain to tighten up.
The most revealing numbers in the CBS-Times survey, in terms of their potential significance, were those measuring how many voters have "favorable" views of candidates and how many have "unfavorable" opinions.
For the front-running Mr. Bush, the figures were 34 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable, 25 percent undecided and 18 percent "haven't heard enough" about the candidate to have an opinion. For the leading Democrat, Mr. Gore, it was 24 favorable, 36 unfavorable, 24 undecided and 14 "haven't heard enough."
It is obvious that Mr. Gore has a dangerously high unfavorable rating; political professionals tend to get nervous about any figure above 35 percent. But the poll also found that 38 percent of the voters still are waiting to make up their minds about the vice president, meaning that there is a significant constituency still available to him. In Mr. Bush's case, 43 percent are either undecided or awaiting more information, which suggests he has miles to go before he locks up this election.
The approval-disapproval figures for the leading challengers were even more instructive. Mr. Bradley's approval was 17 percent against 13 percent disapproval, 21 undecided and 48 haven't heard enough.
The corresponding figures for Mr. McCain were 14, 10, 16 and 58. So there are large majorities of the electorate -- 69 percent in Mr. Bradley's case, 74 percent in Mr. McCain's -- either undecided or needing more information.
The political message is spelled out in 10-foot neon letters: Most Americans are not paying attention. Those who dwell inside the Washington beltway and those who make their living in politics may be consumed by the twists and turns of these campaigns for the 2000 presidential nomination, but few voters across the country have even formed an opinion.
New Hampshire, of course, is different. A new poll there conducted by Dartmouth College and the Associated Press found that Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush were known to 98 percent of likely primary voters, Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain to 89 and 87 percent, respectively. That being the case, it may be legitimate to take the match-up polls on New Hampshire a little more seriously.
On the Republican side, they have continued to show Mr. McCain gaining ground on Mr. Bush -- it's Mr. Bush 44, Mr. McCain 31 in the latest survey -- but that has been visible to the naked eye for several weeks in which Mr. McCain has been getting all the best of it from media coverage.
But the new survey also shows Mr. Gore leading Mr. Bradley by 8 points, contrary to some other polls that have found the Democratic race essentially even or Mr. Bradley slightly ahead. And it showed Mr. Gore gaining slightly against Mr. Bush in the last month.
Those findings seem counter-intuitive at a time when the buzz in the political community is all about how Mr. Gore has been screwing up with his earth-tone suits and advice from a feminist guru. The answer could be that we are all talking to ourselves about inside baseball of no concern to most Americans.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.