WASHINGTON — AS he heads into the opening months of the 1996 campaign, President Clinton appears to want voters to view him as a leader above rancor, searching for solutions, almost bipartisan: the Great Conciliator.
Running on such high-minded values is the classic Rose Garden strategy of a president who feels politically secure. Mr. Clinton is indeed doing well in the polls, at least for now - a well-delivered State of the Union speech gave him another boost Tuesday night, solidifying his position as the overall front-runner for the November election.
It's a much different position than the president was in a year ago. In the wake of the GOP congressional takeover, Clinton's 1995 State of the Union seemed almost an afterthought, the plea of a younger brother that he be allowed to play, too. Budget wrangling and foreign-policy success have changed all that.
''Nobody is arguing that this person is irrelevant anymore,'' notes Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. ''He's on a much stronger footing politically than he was a year ago.''
The numbers tell the story. In December 1994, Clinton's approval rating was 41 percent, according to Pew Research Center figures. Forty-nine percent of respondents disapproved of the way he was handling the White House.
Since then, this figure has slowly risen upward. The latest Pew poll, taken last weekend, found 50 percent of voters approve of the job Clinton is doing. While much attention in Washington has focused on budget politics, a large part of the president's rise in the polls can in fact be attributed to foreign policy. As late as last June, Pew found approval of Clinton's stewardship of foreign policy only 39 percent. The latest figure is 52 percent, as the deployment of US peacekeepers to Bosnia continues to be uneventful.
Clinton's State of the Union speech may bolster his standing with the voters. A snap ABC poll taken Tuesday night found that 51 percent of viewers believe the country should head in the direction Clinton wants to lead it, while only 28 percent believe the US should follow the Republican course. That's a big switch from a year ago, when a similar poll after the 1995 State of the Union found that the GOP had a 39 to 38 percent advantage on the same question.
On the all-important presidential trial- heat question, Clinton continues to maintain a clear margin over the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Senate majority leader Bob Dole. Last week Pew found Clinton leading Senator Dole 53 to 41 percent. In a sign of softness, however, Clinton did less well against when matched against a general GOP nominee. And by no means does a lead in January a victory in November make. In March 1992, Bush led Clinton in the polls, 51 to 42 percent.
Clinton's problem is that on the presidential level American politics has become highly volatile, notes Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer. Fewer voters identify themselves as strict Republicans or Democrats than in decades past, and ''without strong attachment to the parties, short-term factors affect people more than they would otherwise.''
THAT means that a well-received State of the Union can send poll figures up. It also means that bad news - continuing Whitewater focus on first lady Hillary Clinton, for example - can just as quickly send poll numbers down.
Still, in an unpartisan age bipartisanship may prove persistently popular, and in his speech Tuesday Clinton did his best to appear the statesman. He pilloried ''discrimination, division, and rancor'' and held forth a vision of an ''Age of Possibility'' that can be achieved only by cooperation among leaders of different political stripes. Harry Truman, in his reelection race, bluntly positioned himself as the alternative to a do-nothing Congress. Clinton, by contrast, attempted to gently co-opt GOP congressional themes.
Twice the president said that ''the era of big government is over,'' in an attempt to dodge the label of tax-and-spend liberal. He emphasized the need for family values and community, and some of his specific proposals - such as a grass-roots campaign against teenage pregnancy - would involve the federal government only peripherally.
Republicans sat stone-faced, many furious that the president was stealing what they feel to be their themes. Clinton as centrist, many in the GOP said, was yet another reinvention from a man with no real principled beliefs. ''The president is sugarcoating his liberal record with sweet-sounding rhetoric,'' said Rep. Jim Nussle (R) of Iowa. ''Although the president always gives a good speech, it's clear from the past that he is long on promises and short on follow-through.''
In the official GOP response, Dole attempted to repin the label of ''liberal'' on Clinton, using the term at least five times. Dole said: ''It's as though our government, our institutions, and our culture have been hijacked by liberals and are careening dangerously off course.''