Voters in Message-Sending Mood

Surveys show use of Buchanan to chide Bush, Democratic ambivalence about Clinton

WHY has Patrick Buchanan done so well against George Bush? Why has Paul Tsongas defied the experts to become one of the Democrats' strongest candidates for president? Why has Bill Clinton's campaign disappointed some supporters?

Exit polls and other surveys are shedding fresh light on the presidential campaign as the race for the White House moves into its most intense phase.

Mr. Buchanan's insurgent campaign against President Bush apparently has gotten a powerful lift from two principal factors, studies indicate.

First, thousands of voters tell pollsters that they believe the conservative columnist "cares about people like me." Buchanan himself says that his views on fixing the economy and helping the unemployed took on new urgency after he spent 10 weeks campaigning in recession-wracked New Hampshire. Voters think his concern about them is genuine.

In contrast, people say they generally do not believe Bush understands their problems or is willing to do much about them.

Second, huge numbers want to send Bush a message - namely, that he should pay more attention to economic, social, and political issues at home. More than half of the people who vote for Buchanan see him as a messenger rather than a serious candidate for president. That view of Buchanan could quickly change, however, if he soon wins a major primary against the president.

On the Democratic side, former Senator Tsongas's strength has different roots. Exit surveys in the New Hampshire primary indicated that voters credit Tsongas with being a man of ideas and a person who demonstrates genuine courage. Indeed, on both those qualities, Tsongas out-scored all other Democrats with the exception of Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner. Mr. Kerrey also gets high marks for showing "strength and courage in life," according to Voter Research & Surveys, which has conducted exit po lls in South Dakota and New Hampshire for CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN.

Tsongas's appeal appears to be concentrated among better-educated, affluent Democrats, especially those who reside in the fast-growing suburbs. Mr. Clinton, long viewed by Washington insiders as the prime Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination, is seen by voters as the strongest person for the party to run against Bush in November. Clinton also gets credit from voters for his long experience as governor of Arkansas, and his skill as a debater.

Though Clinton and Tsongas have significant strengths, neither has moved into a clear lead in the Democratic race. The apparent reason: voters have serious doubts about both men.

In South Dakota, for example, 32 percent of Democratic voters expressed concerns about Clinton's character. Charges of marital infidelity and draft avoidance during the Vietnam War have dogged him since the closing days of the New Hampshire campaign.

Tsongas's obstacle is voter concern about his health. He overcame cancer in the mid-1980s. In South Dakota, 26 percent of the Democrats who voted in the primary said they worry about whether his health would have a serious impact on his ability to be president.

As the campaign races ahead, voter opinions are solidifying on all of the candidates.

Bush is lauded by voters for his experience, his ability to win in November, and his personal courage. But voters think the president has few ideas about fixing what's wrong in the country.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown wins good marks for his ideas, and for caring about average people. But few think he can win the election against Bush.

Sen. Tom Harkin is praised by some voters for being loyal to Democratic Party principles, for caring about people, and for upholding family values. But Democratic voters don't see him as their strongest candidate against Bush.

Senator Kerrey has many qualities that voters like. They praise him for showing concern for average people, for upholding family values, for courage, for being a good Democrat, and for doing well in debates. His greatest weakness, voters say, comes in the area of ideas for improving the country.

Men and women are voting somewhat differently in this primary season. Among Republicans, Buchanan's greater strength by far is found among men, who support him more often than women by a 3-to-2 ratio. Buchanan also does better among middle-aged voters (30 to 59 years old) than he does with either younger or older voters, who are Bush's strength.

Among Democrats, Kerrey and Tsongas appear to be more appealing to women voters, while Harkin does better with men. Clinton and Brown have uniform support between the sexes.

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