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Jewish World Review Aug. 19, 1999 /7 Elul, 5759

Morton Kondracke

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Neither party has upper hand for '99 -- AFTER SEVEN MONTHS of maneuvering, polls indicate that neither Republicans nor Democrats have gained a decisive political advantage looking toward the 2000 elections.

Republicans have been touting the recent Wirthlin survey showing 68 percent public approval of the GOP tax cut, but every other poll suggests a preference for using the budget surplus for education, Social Security or paying down the national debt.

What's more, Wirthlin shows that Democrats enjoy a slight advantage -- 43 to 40 percent -- on the generic congressional preference question, with little change registered since April.

That, in turn, is at variance with the bipartisan Battleground survey in early June, which showed the parties tied. But that was a 10-point improvement for the GOP since January.

The latest report on the generic question comes in a GOP poll by John McLaughlin & Associates in July showing Republicans ahead slightly, 41 to 38 percent with 22 percent undecided.

In mid-July, the CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll showed that 42 percent of U.S. adults preferred that Democrats run Congress and 37 percent said Republicans. Last December, Democrats were preferred, 41-30.

The poll does show significant improvement in Congress' job approval rating -- from 55-36 negative in February after President Clinton's impeachment trial to 43-41 positive just as Congress was leaving for the August recess.

The bottom line, both on the generic question and congressional approval, is that the public is about evenly divided between the parties. That is, Republicans have climbed out of their impeachment hole, but no one has yet gained the upper hand.

On issues, too, there is no clear message yet, although right now the greatest potential for a breakthrough would seem to lie with the Democrats on gun control.

There is no question that the public overwhelmingly favors stronger gun restrictions -- undoubtedly more every week as each new case of violence takes over the news.

In June, CBS found that 83 percent of adults favor mandatory safety locks; 86 percent, extending the time for background checks at gun shows; 79 percent, requiring gun buyers to pass a safety test and obtain a license; and 70 percent, registering all firearms with the government.

By 61 to 33 percent, the public opposes allowing people to carry concealed weapons as supported by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential frontrunner.

Also in June, the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that voters said Democrats do a better job handling gun control than Republicans. In July, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that by 64 to 29 percent, the public was dissatisfied with Congress' performance on gun control.

Also in July, the Pew Research Center found that by 55 to 35 percent, voters favor the defeat of a Member of Congress who voted against gun control and favor by 69 to 25 percent the re-election of a gun control supporter.

What's not clear is how important gun control -- or any other supposedly hot issue -- is in the electorate's scale of values.

In the July NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, education topped the public's list of congressional priorities at 30 percent. Reforming Medicare was second at 20 percent. Cutting taxes followed at 16 percent. Gun control ranked next at 14 percent and patients' rights finished with 9 percent.

Wirthlin, however, found this month that 23 percent of voters believe that crime is the most important issue facing the country today, followed by a decline in moral values, 14 percent; economics, 11 percent; health care and Medicare, 7 percent; and education, 4 percent.

In June, the Hotline poll showed that Social Security reform held a slight edge.

In the Battleground survey in June, restoring moral values was tops with 25 percent, followed by improving education at 19 percent, fighting crime at 11 percent and cutting taxes at 6 percent.

Pretty clearly, both parties are seeking to cover their bets on all the traditional issues. Clinton favors tax cuts. Republicans are coming around on patients' rights and may pass some token gun control. Everybody's for better education, Medicare reform, saving Social Security -- and, presumably, better moral standards.

On morals, the Battleground survey indicates that the GOP has the upper hand. By 37 to 27 percent, voters think Bush is better than Vice President Al Gore at knowing right from wrong -- and congressional Republicans are better than Democrats, 35 to 18 percent. On taxes, the most telling poll yet may be Pew's July survey. When voters were asked whether the non-Social Security surplus should be used to cut taxes or "to fund new government programs," cutting taxes won by 60 to 25 percent.

But another question pitting tax cuts against "programs for education, the environment, health care, crime-fighting and military defense," the public preferred spending over tax cuts, 69 to 22 percent.

The lesson -- and the bottom line for this year -- is that whoever defines the issues best will win. For who that is, stay tuned.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/02/99: One campaign reform should pass: disclosure
07/27/99: Gore leads Bush in policy proposals

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