Contra hearings: revelations mount, but is the public listening? Americans tune out hearings, but not Reagan's role in affair

The Iran-contra hearings haven't bowled over public opinion in Albuquerque. Or Pittsburgh. In Marceline, Mo., a hike in cable-television rates made more news. In Beulah, N.D., ``we don't hear a lot about that subject,'' says Ken Beauchamp, managing editor of the local paper.

Middle America, it seems, is not very interested in the Iran-contra investigations by Congress.

``Lately, I've been avoiding the congressional hearings,'' says radio talk-show host Mike Levine at KDKA in Pittsburgh. His national topics this particular night: the hard times at the PTL ministry and a newly published photo of former presidential candidate Gary Hart with actress Donna Rice. ``Against this world of wild, juicy things, why would anybody want to talk about those congressional hearings? They're a bore,'' Mr. Levine says.

The reaction is much the same in San Francisco.

``The average person isn't paying that much attention,'' says Ronn Owens, radio talk show host for KGO. ``It just doesn't have the spark that other controversies have.''

There are exceptions, of course.

When Democratic Sen. David L. Boren went home to Oklahoma over Memorial Day weekend, he says he found more support for his role in the congressional inquiry than any other action he has taken in the Senate.

In Miami, portions of the large Cuban-American population are concerned because they fear a weakening of American support for the contras in Nicaragua.

``Our fight against communism has been paralyzed,'' says Carlos Perez, president of Concerned Citizens for Democracy, a Miami-based nonprofit group.

But the number of people around the country closely following the investigations is quite small, says California pollster Mervin Field, probably less than 10 percent.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear. Pollsters aren't sure whether public interest will mushroom or fizzle. The only clear trend is that, while bored with the hearings, the court of public opinion is increasingly critical of President Reagan and his role in the affair.

A CBS-New York Times poll released Saturday showed that 59 percent of those surveyed thought the President lied when he said he did not know money from Iranian arms sales was going to the contras. That's up from 47 percent in December.

Even in conservative Arizona, ``his [Reagan's] strong bipartisan support appears to have crumbled,'' says Earl de Berge, research director of the Rocky Mountain Poll. Rated excellent or good by 59 percent of those surveyed in January of 1986, Reagan's job performance slipped to 45 percent in April. The reason, Mr. de Berge says, is his handling of the Iran-contra affair, which 56 percent in the April poll rated negatively.

Whether the President bounces back depends partly on the outcome of the hearings, says Claibourne Darden, head of his own polling firm in Atlanta. The longer the hearings drag on, the more damaging they could be to Reagan officials, Mr. Darden adds. ``They get more guilty week by week, regardless of the facts.''

The taint could also spread to Republican presidential candidates, pollsters warn. ``The Iran-contra issue with its subsidiary scandals ... looms as a major campaign issue in 1988,'' says George Shipley, a Democratic pollster and consultant in the Southwest.

``I don't see it as the talk of the town,'' adds Tim Coder, assistant city editor of the Albuquerque Journal. ``There's very little shock effect, but overall it's an important issue.''

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