Reagan: the slippage factor

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

There are two sides to the Reagan political story these days.

One is that the President is holding up surprisingly well in the view of most Americans simply because they still find him likable and trustworthy.

The other is that there is indeed some slippage in public approval, and that it is causing concern in the higher reaches of the administration and among party leaders everywhere.

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That canny and outspoken southern Republican leader - Clarke Reed of Mississippi - puts the best light on Reagan's current standing in this way:

''If a year ago we had thought the economy would be as bad as it is today, we would have thought we would be in terrible political trouble. So it is really remarkable how well the President is holding up.''

Then this vice-chairman of the Republican National Committee, whose special responsibility is keeping an eye on the party's southern region, points out Reagan's growing problems:

''There is some Reagan slippage in this area. But I talk to businessmen who are beginning to complain about the economy and about Reagan and I ask, 'Would you vote for Kennedy over Reagan - or for Mondale or for Carter?' And they all say, 'No, they would still vote for Reagan.' Despite the lagging economy, Reagan still has a lot going for him here in the South.''

That's a balanced assessment from a loyal Republican who, try as he will, can't quite remove the impression that he is worried about the President's popularity and, particularly, about whether Reagan may be losing some of his hold on his loyal supporters.

Both Democratic and Republican polling shows that upward of 70 to 80 percent of rank-and-file Republicans back Reagan and believe he is doing a good job. This is to be compared with the 40-some percent of Democrats who were staying with President Carter at a similar point in his administration.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart says that as long as the President is able to keep his hard-core Republican following he will never drop below 40 percent in the polls rating his performance and popularity.

This GOP loyalty, if sustained, he says, will give Reagan the capacity to move up in the polls and avoid sinking into the 30s and 20s in the ratings as Carter did in his later years in the White House. But, underscoring the growing GOP worry, another veteran Republican political hand comments:

''What we find is that these hard-core supporters aren't getting off the boat , at least not in any large numbers. But they are losing some of their enthusiasm for the President.''

Republican strategists do not see how they can do too much to rekindle enthusiasm within GOP ranks. Instead, they are resting their hopes on the economy lifting justenough to renew the faith of the Reagan faithful.

Looking to 1984, these strategists believe the hard-core Reaganites, even if straying or ready to stray, will come home to the President if the opponent is a liberal, like Kennedy or Mondale. But they see the possibility that the Democrats, deciding that there is indeed a conservative trend in the country, will in the end select someone like Ernest Hollings or Reubin Askew, or an attractive newcomer who would appeal to conservatives.

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