CLINTON HAS SOLID LEAD OVER DOLE IN MISSOURI PRESIDENT'S MORALS QUESTIONED, BUT AREN'T KEY, NEW POLL FINDS Series: POST-DISPATCH SHOW-ME POLL Politics First of Seven in a Series

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Despite deep public concerns about his character, President Bill Clinton holds a strong lead in Missouri and the St. Louis area, the Post-Dispatch's latest Show-Me Poll indicates.

Clinton had the support of more than 48 percent of the 1,003 people su rveyed in June, while more than 29 percent favored Bob Dole, the presumed Republican nominee.

Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, widened his lead over his likely Republican opponent, state Auditor Margaret Kelly. Of the 871 Missourians sampled, almost 51 percent preferred Carnahan. Slightly more than 27 percent favored Kelly.

Clinton and Carnahan's solid leads are partly a result of gender and age gaps. Women and younger voters are solidly in the Democrats' camp.

That's despite strong misgivings among all ages and both sexes about Clinton's character. Just 36 percent of those polled rated Clinton's performance as "good" or "excellent." Other ratings seem even more damaging:

Fifty-five percent questioned Clinton's moral character.

Sixty-two percent said the Whitewater controversy raised concerns about the president's honesty.

Dole's failure to capitalize on Clinton's problems is partly because of the former senator's own apparent liabilities:

About 40 percent of those polled view Dole as "mean-spirited."

Thirty-eight percent say Dole, at 72, is too old to be president. Of those at least 55, 45 percent say he's too old.

If those polled could choose anybody for president, the majority prefers somebody other than Clinton or Dole.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell was the top dream candidate in a crowded wish list. Clinton came in second. Dole was fourth, nosed out by Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

Perot, who says he will run for president if nominated by his party, p was not pitted against Dole or Clinton in the poll. In 1992, in his independent run for the White House, he got 23 percent of the votes in Missouri and 19 percent nationwide.

The poll indicates Perot may have a tougher time this year. Although about a third said they thought a new party was needed, fewer than 4 percent planned to vote for a third-party presidential candidate.

Flaws Are Overlooked

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University who has written several books on the presidency, said the poll's findings didn't surprise him. The public apparently has decided to ignore Clinton's personal liabilities, he said.

"Clinton's in good shape," he said.

The public often overlooks character flaws in presidential contenders, Warren said. Performance is considered more important.

"Four years ago in exit polls, George Bush beat Clinton substantially in the moral character area," Warren said.

Even so, Clinton won the election because Bush was blamed for the lagging economy. Conversely, in 1972, Warren said, polls showed George McGovern getting higher character ratings than Richard Nixon, yet Nixon went on to cream McGovern. Voters were queasy about McGovern's sweeping economic proposals.

For Ed Hillhouse, 47, of Pacific, character is key. That's why he's leaning toward Dole, although reluctantly.

John Scully, 72, also of Pacific, says he doesn't care about Clinton's personal problems. "Politicians are all the same," Scully said, adding that he plans to vote for Clinton because of the president's record. …

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