Pulse of America: What Is This Contract, Anyway?

THIS is a cautionary tale about Republican revolutions, government overhauls, and outside-the-Washington-beltway America -- way outside.

Here at the Universal Studios theme park, Americans of all stripes converge and pay good money to scare themselves with hydraulic-powered movie apes (''King Kong: The Ride''), fake infernos (''Backdraft''), and simulated shifts of the earth's crust (''Earthquake'').

Scores of buses in the parking lot show that these folks have stepped off the curb from Everywhere, USA: Kiwanis Clubs from Michigan, veterans organizations from Alabama, sewing circles from Wisconsin.

What do these hard-to-fool, fantasy mavens at one of the country's premier image factories think of the ''seismic'' shifts being reported from that other image factory, Washington?

The answers may surprise you.

''I have never heard of Newt Gingrich, the 104th Congress or any Contract With America,'' says Jennifer K., a medical technician and recent graduate of Boston University, while licking a vanilla cone.

Sampling error? Interviewer bias? Statistical anomaly? Hardly.

GOP lawmakers in the faraway Capitol congratulating themselves for keeping their 10-point Contract With America might be a bit sobered by rubbing shoulders with the masses here and across the country.

A nationwide New York Times/CBS poll last week found that only 38 percent of Americans have read or heard anything about the Contract.

That means 62 percent have not.

''What's going to happen is going to happen whether I know about it or not,''says Ms. K. So much for participatory democracy.

These numbers may be important when the second ''100 days'' begins and the political airwaves are thick with renewed quests ''for the hearts and minds of Americans'' and ''the political soul of the country.''

But many observers say the politicians' battle to move the public to their side may never get outside the beltway. They say that as lawmakers move from talk about budget cutting to actual lists of what must go, the public's resolve will erode even further.

Besides the low level of public awareness, the CBS poll showed 47 percent of Americans say they were mostly disappointed with accomplishments of the 104th Congress -- compared with only 39 percent who were pleased.

Other polls have been slightly more positive, though. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll reports that 42 percent of those questioned saw the first ''100 days'' as a success, versus 40 percent who deemed it a failure.

A slice of America

Meet some of those in the skeptical category:

Charles Frankenfield, a chef from Redondo Beach, Calif., called all the hoopla over the first 100 days ''just politicians way to make it look like they're doing something. The very easy stuff they passed,'' he says. ''On the hard stuff -- like term limits and a balanced-budget amendment -- they dropped the ball.''

Jonathan R., a twentysomething financial services agent from Mississippi, has never heard of Mr. Gingrich by name, but responded after hearing a description: ''Oh yeah, the guy with white hair. I've seen him. But a lot of the laws he passed are just going to get stalled or watered down in the Senate.''

Perhaps as can be expected in Hollywood, a large number of citizen comedians had snappy comebacks.

''I thought it was Contract on America,'' says Steven Carruthers, a pipe fitter from Arkansas. ''Newt and his Republican, hit-man buddies are taking the country out behind the Capitol for a mugging.''

Another woman scoffed at comparisons of the first 100 days of the 104th Congress to the first 100 days of former President Franklin Roosevelt's administration.

''If that was the New Deal,'' she says with a smirk, ''then this is the raw deal.''

More typical of views here though, are those of Lisa N., a young business-marketing graduate of James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va. She had never heard of the Contract With America, but had heard of Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House. When shown a list of the 10 Contract items, she could identify one as ''something I've heard a little about.'' The item: capital gains and business tax breaks passed by the House.

''Most of this stuff has to do with old people and families and nothing to do with me,'' she says from behind a glinting pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers. ''I'm more concerned with getting my life on track.''

Promises kept

But the comments of Byron Clarke, a school teacher from Englewood, Calif., are also typical. He disagrees with what House Republicans did, but is impressed that they did what they set out to do.

''I respect that they came up with an agenda, made promises about it, and followed through,'' Mr. Clarke says. With a total family income of about $30,000, Clarke echoed the most-often repeated complaint here: Tax cuts for those earning up to $200,000 are far too easy on the rich.

Beginning today, the political action shifts to Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who announces that he will be seeking the Republican Party's nomination for president. To maximize his exposure, he promises great progress in the upper chamber on much of the same agenda over the next 100 days.

But at least one person out here has doubts about Dole as well. ''He's forgotten the common man just like all those other political millionaires,'' says Eunice R., from Sheridan, Wyo.

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