Americans' One Political Desire: Centrism ; New Polls Show the Public Leans toward a Manager More Than Than a Bigthinker. Series: Presidential Hopeful George W. Bush Has Not Strayed Too Far from the Center. BY LAURA CAMDEN/REUTERS 3) SAFE COUR; Presidential Hopeful Al Gore Has Not Strayed Too Far from the Center. BY JOHN GAPS III/AP

Article excerpt

American presidential politics is awash in centrism, and one explanation is that the public's keeping it there.

Not wanting to upset the nation's prosperity, Americans aren't demanding much. They don't want big change. They don't want big government solutions. In fact, they're not even sure what they do want.

"There's no great desire for government to do much, and there's no demand percolating from the bottom for grand changes," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Unusually, Mr. Zogby says, he hasn't even been able to identify the top campaign 2000 issues, because Americans' priorities - in the absence of overriding concerns - fluctuate according to the big news story of the moment.

What all of this indicates, say analysts, is that the public is looking for a presidential leader who will take only small to moderate steps toward a better future, rather than risky big ones. It is inclined toward a kind of Bill Clinton - the consummate centrist - minus the scandal.

"What we're electing now, more than in the past, are managers," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll in California.

The two leading presidential candidates - Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore - belong to this class of managers, says Mr. DiCamillo. So do local and state officials such as California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who's as "dead center" as they come, DiCamillo says. He goes so far as to say that the "blah candidate" is what's in vogue.

But what about the issues?

Two people alarmed by this centrist pull are authors James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson, who have written a new book on the perils of Mr. Clinton's moderate governing style.

They see plenty of problems crying out for something more than an incremental approach - education reform, for instance, requires much more than just the 100,000 new teachers the president seeks. Plus, there's still a crisis in health care, the problem of the income gap, and environmental issues, they argue.

Granted, the country appears content - there's no great war or depression, and an opposition Congress hardly makes it possible to turn big ideas into law.

"But our point is that what should be done is to raise the flag, whether it's a Republican or Democratic flag, and admit that not much progress is being made, and to keep the great ideals alive," says Mr. Burns. He says those ideals can just as easily involve the private or nonprofit sectors as they can the government.

A great president, Burns contends, is someone who leads and educates the country toward a transformation, even if it might not be aware that it needs it. …