Washington — America's mood is changing. Just six weeks before election day, pollsters and analysts are detecting a shift in sentiment among the electorate that could have a significant impact on the presidential campaign.
The turnabout could play into Republican hands, and help George Bush, while making it more difficult for Michael Dukakis to attack the vice-president.
Among the key developments:
President Reagan's popularity, after languishing at lackluster levels, has climbed back to its highest point in months.
Voters who were once looking for change in national policy are now giving more weight to continuity.
Americans who showed widespread concern about their economic futures a few months ago are growing more optimistic.
News coverage of the campaign has focused on Mr. Bush's attacks on Governor Dukakis, particularly on the issues of prison furloughs, the pledge of allegiance, and national defense. But political experts say the vice-president's current lead in the polls may stem just as much from the improved political climate for Republicans.
Simply put, Americans are feeling better about things.
Only four months ago, 55 percent of the voters were ``dissatisfied with the way things are going,'' and favored change, according to a Times Mirror poll. Just 39 percent said they were satisfied.
But in the most recent Times Mirror survey, the number of dissatisfied voters skidded to 45 percent, while those expressing satisfaction rose to 50 percent.
It was during that same time that the polls turned around for Bush.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization, says one factor in the turnabout was probably the Republican National Convention.
The convention reminded voters of the achievements of the Reagan White House, such as new jobs and lower interest rates. At the same time, voters were given a brief history lesson on the double-digit inflation and gasoline lines during the Democrats' last White House term.
Voters also started to look at Bush differently. Says Mr. Kohut: ``Bush now is as likely to be seen as an agent of change as is Dukakis. That's an enormous difference, and a very important one.''
Another reason voters are less interested in change is renewed support for President Reagan.
``It is clear that George Bush's boat has risen as Ronald Reagan's tide has gone up,'' says Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
The White House staff, mindful of Mr. Reagan's importance in the 1988 election, has skillfully orchestrated the last two months. They've seen to it that the President appeared energized and ``back in the saddle,'' and that has given the public renewed confidence in Republican leadership, Dr. Ornstein says.
Mr. Kohut says both Bush and Reagan are also being helped by foreign policy breakthroughs.
``I think the overall success of Ronald Reagan at the [Moscow] summit had an effect that sort of snuck up on us,'' Kohut says. The summit boosted Reagan's approval rating, and ever since those ratings rose, Bush has looked stronger, the pollster observes.
As election day nears, voters are giving greater weight to pocketbook issues, and that also is helping the GOP.
By and large, voters are satisfied with their own personal finances, though concerned about the nation as a whole.
A CBS/New York Times survey this month found that Bush wins overwhelming support (73 percent) among voters who feel times are getting better.
Mr. Dukakis does best among voters who are worried that times are getting worse, among whom he gets 62 percent support. Unfortunately for Dukakis, there just aren't enough of those people.
Kohut says the economic question is the most accurate indicator of how someone will vote - three times as significant as issues like education, crime, and budget deficits.
It supports the old political axiom that nothing counts as much on election day as ``peace and prosperity.''
Republican consultant John Deardourff says that after the wild gyrations of the polls over the summer, ``events of the real world are now coming into play'' - such as the economy.
Mr. Deardourff says that makes it ``very, very tough for Dukakis to find an opening.'' The Democrat can ``pick at the edges'' by accusing Republicans of favoring the rich, being thoughtless toward the poor, and so forth.
But such issues are ``well below the line of vision of most voters,'' he says.
Some leading Democratic consultants privately agree with Deardourff's appraisal. Without a major blunder by Bush, they say, the public mood makes the road for Dukakis very steep.