US Public Chooses Stability, For Now

Polls show public is dismayed by Clinton, but may see greater danger in ousting him

All across the nation, average Americans are expressing disgust and disdain for what many now see as morally degrading acts on the part of their elected leader.

But they continue to separate the person from the politics. In the wake of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on possible impeachable acts by the president, a majority of poll respondents insist that the risks of removing Mr. Clinton from office outweigh the risks of allowing him to stay.

National opinion may not yet fully reflect the impact of Mr. Starr's report. The president's poll numbers could still collapse.

But a snapshot of current trends indicates that events of recent days have made only a marginal impact on voters' ideas about the course the nation should now chart.

"Essentially, Americans really value the presidency as an institution and understand that we just don't lightly dump the president," says John Zogby, head of the polling firm Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.

Boston business analyst Erik Chase is fairly typical of a wide section of public opinion. Mr. Chase says he has no illusions as to the strength of the president's moral character. The Starr report has only fleshed out the details of actions many Americans long believed to be true.

But Chase believes it would be too destructive to the country as a whole if the president were to resign or be impeached.

"I don't think [Vice President] Gore is a powerful enough leader to step into the presidency at this point," he says. "I think Clinton has an obligation to fulfill his last two years in office."

The recent whipsawing in the stock market, and foreign crises such as the bombings of US embassies in Africa, are among the problems voters say they worry would get worse if the nation had to break in a new chief executive.

Candace, a dental hygienist from Worcester, Mass., who was reluctant to divulge her last name to a reporter, says, "it would open us up to too much volatility if we were to change presidents midstream."

To US eyes, Japan and some parliamentary governments in Europe seem willing to change leaders as easily as if they were hats. Italy, for instance, has had 55 governments in the past 46 years.

Americans "want someone who holds everything together," says Candace. "Look at how unstable some of those countries in Europe are - there's no continuity."

Of course, some might argue that the US government is already unstable, due to the president's own behavior. The possibility of impeachment would be a distraction to any chief executive contemplating the future of appropriations bills, say, or the course to take in Iraq.

Jim Griswold, a sales representative in Glenview, Ill., wants to see Clinton impeached. But he feels the rest of the country doesn't because "we're all enjoying the good economy. We don't want to do anything that will upset the country."

Overall, just 18 percent of respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll taken Sunday said Clinton should be impeached for his actions in the Lewinsky matter. The largest group - 41 percent - said Congress should simply drop the matter, while 34 percent took the middle ground and urged that lawmakers vote to censure him.

Remarkably, the poll showed that fully 70 percent of respondents said the Starr report, and its relentless details about alleged presidential malfeasance, didn't change their opinion of Clinton. That opinion is not high, at least when it comes to moral integrity. Sixty-eight percent of respondents to the survey said Clinton did not share their moral values.

A need for stability is not the only reason citizens cite for keeping the president in office. In general, polls also draw the conclusion that the country has yet to convinced of Starr's impartiality - though his reputation has risen somewhat in recent days. The numbers also indicate that the nation as a whole does not regard lying about sex under oath to be an impeachable offense.

WOMEN continue to support Clinton more strongly then men do, despite the nature of the allegations against him. A Washington Post survey taken after the release of the Starr report found that women are significantly less likely to want to see Clinton leave office.

"Many women are disgusted with his behavior. To say it's inappropriate is mild," says Rita Simon, an American University expert on women's issues and public opinion. "But they're willing to compartmentalize their view" because they like the president's policies.

African-Americans - another core group of Clinton supporters - also remain significant White House backers.

White House aides might do well to hold exuberance in check, however. Many pollsters say it will take some time for the public to fully absorb the Starr report and decide on an appropriate response.

Support for impeachment among certain sub-groups, such as committed GOP voters and college-educated voters as a whole, is hardening. Increased support for a censure vote could be a danger signal.

Right now there is "a wrestling match within the public psyche as to what is an appropriate punishment [for Clinton]," says Scott Rasmussen, a Charlotte, N.C. pollster.

And significant majorities back public hearings on the Lewinsky matter - hearings that could yet change people's minds.

"There is no requirement for public opinion to be consistent," says GOP pollster Robert Teeter.

* Staff writers Yvonne Zipp in Boston, Abraham McLaughlin in Chicago, and James N.Thurman and Francine Kiefer in Washington contributed to this report.

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