The voters' springtime flirtation with Ross Perot grew warmer last week, while their feelings about George Bush entered the frigid zone. Bill Clinton's wooing of the electorate still received a tepid reaction, though there were hints that the Democrat could ultimately elicit more passion.
These were the main findings of a new TIME/CNN poll, which showed Perot's position in a three-way race improving. When asked whom they now support for President, 37% of registered voters named Perot. Bush and Clinton tied at 24% each. The new figures represent the largest lead Perot has enjoyed over the major-party candidates in any national sampling.
Yet the survey, conducted by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, indicates that Perot's surprisingly high standing may prove ephemeral. Asked if they were certain about their choices, 72% of the Clinton supporters and 65% of Bush voters said yes. For Perot, that figure was only 57%. A majority (53%) said they know little or nothing about Perot. One reason: he has not yet been forced to take firm stands on controversial issues. When his views become clear, Perot's popularity might well suffer.
The new data left no doubt that Bush is suffering. Matched against Clinton, Bush ran only slightly behind the Democrat. But other trends were stark enough to set off alarms at the White House. The President's job-approval rating fell to 30%, a dip of seven points since May and the lowest score he has received in any TIME/CNN survey. Just two months ago, 60% judged Bush a "strong and decisive leader." That figure dropped to 45% last week. Bush's advisers concede that his ambivalent response to the Los Angeles riots damaged his image as a leader.
Clinton, meanwhile, inched up in a number of categories -- perhaps because his primary victories last week reminded voters that he will be the Democratic nominee. Asked which candidate is "close to you on important issues," 38% named Clinton -- a six-point increase since April. On that question, Bush fell 10 points, to 30%, while Perot got 36%. Clinton was also slightly ahead when voters were asked which man "cares about the average American."
Still, Clinton can take only modest satisfaction from the latest numbers. Though the Democrat depicts himself as an outsider determined to overcome the "brain-dead politics" of both parties, a huge majority, 82%, called him a "typical politician." For Bush, the number was 81%. But only 31% applied that label to Perot. At a time when politician is a dirty word, that difference in perception is Perot's great strength. Whether Perot can maintain that asset once he announces his candidacy and comes under close, constant scrutiny is now Campaign '92's biggest question.