'Apathy" isn't a strong enough word. The lack of public enthusiasm in the current run for the presidency beats anything I can remember. Sure, it's the summer doldrums and the race inevitably will stir up more interest come August and the conventions. But most people aren't paying any attention to the contest. And if they are, they aren't giving the contestants any more than one or two cheers.
Indeed, the feedback I've been getting indicates that there's more than the usual number of voters around the country who would put a check by "neither of the above" if provided the opportunity in the November election.
President Clinton looks good in the polls. He's way ahead of Bob Dole and up relatively high in ratings of his performance. But the polls that probe a little deeper into public attitudes are showing that a majority of Americans have serious doubts about Mr. Clinton's record in both the Whitewater and the FBI-files controversies.
This voter questioning of Clinton's character apparently isn't undercutting his current political standing. But public trust in the president isn't today - and hasn't been from almost the beginning of his presidency - very high. Thus, a lot of people who apparently are going to help Clinton to a second term aren't too happy about what they see as their only choice.
That brings us to Mr. Dole who, given this widespread tepid feeling among Clinton's supporters, might well be poised to take advantage of the situation. But enthusiasm for Dole isn't there either - and isn't showing any signs of making an appearance.
So in this vacuum of enthusiasm for either candidate, an incumbent president - with all the visibility that naturally comes to a sitting chief executive and with Clinton speaking out on some issue every day and thus making the most of the spotlight - retains the edge. Clinton is also the beneficiary of an economy that won't hurt him in November.
I keep hearing,"Why can't we have a presidential candidate I can be excited about - someone I can vote for with enthusiasm?" It's not a new refrain. In 1992 a lot of people were saying the same thing in reflecting their unhappiness with President George Bush and candidate Clinton. Thus it was that a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, was able to pick up one-fifth of the vote and the winner, Clinton, only garnered 43 percent of the vote.
WHEN has there been widespread enthusiasm for presidential candidates? Well, Reagan stirred up that kind of support. So did Carter on his first run. And, looking back, I can remember the mighty cheers coming from those who backed Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. I shall never forget, too, the jumpers in the Kennedy crowds as his supporters sought to get a glimpse of him in his passing motorcade. Now that was enthusiasm!
A Republican candidate who could get the voters jumping and shouting or, perhaps, just smiling, might have a good chance of upsetting a president who has never stood high in public trust.
But Dole, regarded as a sweet, warm fellow by his many friends in Congress, comes through to the voters as, at best, lackluster and, at worst, dour and even a bit mean-spirited. Maybe it's because by nature Dole is a man of few words. Or maybe, as he has charged, he isn't getting a fair shake in the press.
But at times of late Dole has clearly hurt his own chances. He didn't have to utter and then stick to words that made him out to be a friend of the tobacco interests. And he didn't have to get testy with Katie Couric, a TV interviewer who, unlike some others, is loved by the viewing public.
In this vacuum of enthusiasm for either candidate, an incumbent president retains the edge.