Washington — As Attorney General Edwin Meese III clings tenaciously to office, Republican political strategists worry about the potential impact of the Meese investigation on the presidential race. ``He's a disaster and should have gone a long time ago,'' says a Reagan friend and ally. ``He owes it to the country and to the President to go now.''
But according to public opinion experts, there is no indication that the Meese phenomenon, the Iran-contra affair, or the so-called ``sleaze factor'' - which embraces a host of questionable activities by former Reagan officials - constitute a major issue with the American electorate. If Mr. Meese were to be indicted, political experts say, this could alter the picture.
``I doubt the Meese thing is penetrating yet,'' says Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization. ``If it gets more and more sordid it will have an impact - it takes away from Bush's ability to say that he can do a better job [than the Democrats].... In general the sleaze factor takes away the issue of good management from the Republicans.' (New men at Justice, Page 5.)
Mark DiCamillo, who is with the Mervin Field polling organization in California, similarly finds that the issue of ethics in government has a ``relatively low salience'' at present. ``It's not an overriding concern or at the top of the mind,'' he remarks. ``But that's not to say it couldn't grow.''
The Iran-contra scandal has dogged GOP presidential contender George Bush to a limited extent. The news media, in particular, have raised the issue and sought to elicit answers to still murky questions about the vice-president's knowledge of and role in the affair. But Mr. Bush appears not to be seriously affected by Iran-contra or by the ethical lapses of the Reagan administration.
``Not all the ethical faux pas and weaknesses of Ronald Reagan can be naturally transferred to Bush,'' says Mr. DiCamillo. ``Iran-contra may prove to be a problem, but I don't think the public has a view of Bush as an unethical man. So to the extent he escapes disclosures of a cover-up, it will look at him differently from Ronald Reagan.''
Horace Busby, a longtime Democratic analyst, suggests that the Democrats will be playing with fire if they make sleaze a big issue. The Democrats themselves are vulnerable, he says, given the corruption in cities and the unresolved ethical problems in Congress. ``Bush is beautifully positioned,'' Mr. Busby says. ``He can run against the Democrats at lower levels.''
But GOP strategists are not that sanguine. John Sears III, a key official in the Reagan presidential campaign in its early days, says the ethical issue could emerge in the election campaign. ``The Democrats would just as soon Meese stay there and the Republicans ... would like him out - yesterday,'' Mr. Sears says.
According to Sears, George Bush could be vulnerable. ``If you're running as a clone of the Reagan administration, you're in a situation where you get a little credit for the good and all the blame for the bad, including the sleaze factor,'' he states.
Some analysts suggest that American voters are concerned about people in high office not observing the rules and pursuing their own self-interest.
``That is an important subtheme in '88,'' says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. ``People look at religion, Wall Street, government - whether it's Meese or Swaggert or Boesky - and there's an underlying sense that people will not play by the rules and will look out for their own interest.''
There is no polling data on this, Mr. Hart says, but the theme emerges in his discussions in focus groups. ``I don't see it as a rich vs. poor thing,'' he comments. ``It's more likely the feeling that everyone's feeding at the trough, looking out for their own.''
Opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich agrees: ``The `hand in the till' does bother people. But people have a limited capacity for moral indignation. The focus now is more on drugs and the homeless. People are more worried about economic and social matters ... and there's a cynicism about politicians anyway. They expect [corruption] - unless it touches the president.''
Dr. Yankelovich finds that the issue of ``fairness'' is dominant; Americans feel that the rich are running the country and being unresponsive to the middle- and lower-income groups.
``In the '40s through the '70s a rising tide did lift all boats, but now it's a zero-sum situation,'' he says. ``The well-to-do are better off and people without much are worse off, and that's very troubling to people.''
According to Kevin Phillips, a conservative analyst, the ``sleaze factor'' does not come into play unless an electorate is ready to change the party in power. ``If there's a sense by November of the Republicans not being responsive on the economy and being caught up in mergers and upper-bracket stuff - in self-serving aspects - the economy could reinforce the image of people grabbing everything.''
Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, says that ethics tends to come into play only in the homestretch of an election campaign. ``It's a marginal issue so far, but it could be significant if there's a close election,'' he says.
This is why many Reagan supporters are irritated with Attorney General Meese for not stepping down. ``I'm not convinced he's consciously and calculatingly dishonest,'' says a former Reagan campaign official. ``But his judgment is so faulty on a whole range of areas and he's so enamored with doing things for the right wing, he doesn't use good judgment on behalf of the good of the country.... It's the height of disloyalty to Ronald Reagan for him to continue to stay in office because he thinks he's done nothing wrong.''
White House aides acknowledge that the President does not see Meese's failings; feels comfortable with him after so many years in California and Washington; and will not consider nudging him out unless the special prosecutor hands down an indictment.