PERHAPS the most interesting statistic to come up in the latest round of political public opinion polls is a Time magazine report on ``unfavorable'' judgment among Republicans. It showed George Bush, Robert Dole, and Jack Kemp all winning more favorable than unfavorable ``impressions'' of the candidates.
But it showed former television preacher Pat Robertson with an unfavorable rating of 52 percent, almost double his favorable rating of 27 percent.
There can be no doubt that Mr. Robertson has a host of devoted and enthusiastic supporters. Among them are many a registered or traditional Democrat who is likely to cross over and vote in the Republican primaries where state law allows such crossovers. Texas, Georgia, and Virginia permit crossover voting.
But if the Time poll is even a remotely accurate measure of national sentiment among Republicans, it would seem to mean that Robertson's popularity is a singularly parochial one. He runs strong in the Bible belt among evangelicals, but the rest of the population seems to show negative interest in having such a person as their next president.
By contrast, Bush and Dole both get favorable ratings, roughly three times their unfavorable ratings. Mr. Bush came out 69 favorable to 19 unfavorable, and Mr. Dole at 64 favorable to 20 unfavorable. Mr. Kemp had 30 favorable to 25 unfavorable.
Without doubt, Bush and Dole continue to be the leading candidates for the Republican nomination.
Robertson is a serious candidate. He will presumably go to the convention with the third largest bloc of delegates. But would the Republican party risk going to the country with a candidate who generates nearly twice as much opposition as support?
This, of course, explains the most obvious feature of the Republican contest. Senator Dole of Kansas is waging the most vigorous ``negative'' campaign within his capability against Vice President Bush. And the vice-president is responding in kind. Between these two there is no love lost. I cannot remember anything as rough since Richard Nixon cut up Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950.
But Dole has never aimed a negative jab at Robertson. And when Robertson felt that the exposure of ecclesiastical misconduct by fellow television preacher Jimmy Swaggart was timed to hurt his case, he blamed Bush. In Robertson's mind, Bush is the opponent. This has produced an unusual triangle on the Republican side with Bush running against both Dole and Robertson, but Dole running only against Bush. The theory is that when the chips are down at the convention there will be few Robertson delegates moving over to the Bush camp but many, perhaps a decisive number, joining the Dole cause.
NO such clarity has yet evolved on the Democratic side. Albert Gore has yet to win a big state or bloc of delegates, but he stands as a visible and impressive figure. If he could do as well in the South as Michael Dukakis has done in New Hampshire, he would rank with Dukakis and Richard Gephardt among the leading possibilities.
Those are the three leaders among Democrats with no one perceptibly far enough ahead to be called a ``front runner.'' Jesse Jackson, like Robertson on the other side of the fence, is a power factor. The others handle him carefully and courteously. He too will go to the convention with a solid bloc of delegates. He could be the kingmaker.
So far as one can judge the future, the Republicans will nominate either Bush or Dole. In reasonable probability the Democrats will choose among Gore, Dukakis, and Gephardt. The choice could depend as much on Mr. Jackson as the choice between the two Republican leaders is likely to be made by Robertson.
The idea of an outsider - Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn, William Bradley - is still present among Democrats, but is not heard as much these days as it was before Iowa and New Hampshire. The field is narrowing, but we are yet a long way from the actual nominations.