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Don't Overestimate Bush's Weakness

As Campaign '92 moves into Super Tuesday, President Bush - while he has problems - isn't as wounded as he is portrayed to be. The voters' discontent, though real, has been exaggerated, and the Democrats still must produce a strong challenger. Bush seemed vulnerable in 1988, too.

By Everett Carll LaddEverett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. / March 6, 1992

WE'RE right in the middle of the season when, under contemporary rules, the bulk of presidential nominating convention delegates get chosen. Five states - New Hampshire, South Dakota, Maryland, Georgia, and Colorado - have already held primaries, and six states their caucuses, at least on the Democratic side. South Carolina votes tomorrow. Super Tuesday comes next week, when another 11 states will hold primaries (8) or caucuses (3).

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With all this electoral action, the presidential contests have become much clearer than they were just a month or two ago. Obviously, American voters haven't yet rendered their final judgments; but they have said a lot about the electoral direction in which they are headed, given the choices before them. A summary of what they have said is in order.

1. The country is discontented - but not uniquely so. Many Americans are dissatisfied - especially with the economic side of things - and somewhat pessimistic about the future. The national mood began souring notably last fall, and it has stayed sour through the early 1992 balloting. "Time for a change" sentiment is much more potent than it was four years ago.

Still, the extent of the discontent is being wildly overstated by a press and political community which, in this electronic age, seems to have lost historical perspective almost entirely.

How quickly we forget. In August 1988, the press was making much of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that asked respondents which of two positions was closer to their own: "The next president should continue along the path of Ronald Reagan's policies," or "The next president should change direction in dealing with our nation's problems." Sixty-one percent said "change direction."

Such poll findings can be highly misleading. Virtually every time a variant of the question has been asked, going back to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, a majority has endorsed a shift from the incumbent's policies. That hasn't meant, however, that they preferred some specified, real-world alternative to the incumbent.

2. The country is discontented - and conservative. Many Americans are dissatisfied with things as they are, but the nature of their dissatisfaction has hardly moved the country from a generally conservative course. We see this in the candidacies that have come to the fore.

On the Republican side, the moderately conservative incumbent is being challenged vigorously from the right. On the Democratic side, the two front-runners are men who have consciously backed away from the party's modern-day liberalism. Clinton is the only Democrat in the race who supported Mr. Bush's use of force in the Persian Gulf; and for a year before beginning his presidential run he chaired the somewhat rightward leaning Democratic Leadership Council. Paul Tsongas has broken with his party on a bro ad assortment of issues - saying, for example, that as president he would probably veto a tax bill like the one House Democrats just passed. He strongly backs nuclear power.

3. The Democrats still don't have a strong candidate in sight. Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas are the front-runners, but no Democratic entrant has yet built a national following. Not one of the announced candidates is deemed "the American best qualified to be president" by more than a minuscule fraction of Democrats. This is the weakest field presented by a major American party in modern history.