Washington and Idaho voters see the presidential candidates - and some tough financial issues the next occupant of the White House will face - in very different lights.
That may be why two new surveys show Democrat Bill Clinton has widened his lead in Washington while Republican Bob Dole has gained ground in Idaho.
Each was the choice of more than 50 percent of the voters polled last week in the respective states.
Each has boosted an already commanding lead from a similar poll in September.
The surveys suggest that when it comes to deciding how the nation should spend its money, voters in the two states can be as different as, well, Seattle and Boise.
“There is clearly a cultural and ideological difference,” said Del Ali of Mason-Dixon/Political Media Research, which conducted the polls.
Some results of the two surveys:
Idaho voters are more likely to say the federal government should cut spending on food stamps and other nutrition programs.
“Idaho voters may want to completely pull the rug out from under the food stamp program. Washington voters would just maybe shake the rug,” Ali said.
Although Washington has more military bases, Idaho voters are more hawkish. Nearly half of Washington voters said the nation should spend less on military weapons and equipment. Three-fourths of Idaho voters said it should spend the same or more on those items.
Fewer than one Washington voter in five thinks the government’s civilian workers should get a pay cut. A third in Idaho would cut pay and pensions to those bureaucrats.
Idaho’s more conservative voters and Washington’s more liberal voters do approach common ground on some of the nation’s more popular social programs. Few voters in either state support cuts to Medicare, Social Security or student loans and grants.
And neither set of voters is close to a consensus on how the government should spend money to restore salmon on the river system the two states share.
The two polls of likely voters were conducted last week for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV in Spokane. KING-TV in Seattle co-sponsored the Washington state poll, while KTVB-TV in Boise co-sponsored the Idaho poll. Similar polls were conducted a month earlier.
The polls suggest that the presidential debate, which occurred the night before interviews started, didn’t change many minds.
“Debates tend to reinforce opinions rather than change them,” Ali said.
Clinton’s falling prospects in Idaho - only 28 percent of those polled said they planned to vote for his reelection, down from 32 percent last month - may be tied to something other than the debate, Ali suggested. Last month, the president announced his decision to set aside some 1.7 million acres in southern Utah as the Canyons of Escalante National Monument. The move was applauded in many states, but probably not in Idaho.
About half of all voters surveyed in Idaho said they have a favorable opinion of Dole and his running mate Jack Kemp, while only about a fourth have a favorable opinion of Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
“They’re very conservative and they just don’t like Bill Clinton,” Ali said. “But Gore’s the surprise. These are the worst numbers I’ve ever seen on him.”
In Washington, it’s a near mirror image on the presidential candidates - 53 percent have a favorable opinion of Clinton, while only 30 percent have a favorable opinion of Dole.
In the Evergreen state, however, Kemp’s approval rating virtually matches Gore’s. Nearly half the voters said they have a favorable opinion of the parties’ number two men.
Reform Party candidate Ross Perot slipped to just 2 percent of the vote in Washington, down from 4 percent in September.
But the Texas billionaire actually gained support in Idaho, moving to 10 percent from 6 percent in the September poll.
Two percent of the voters in Idaho said they were supporting Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin, but no other minor party candidate got the support of 1 percent or more of those surveyed. In Washington, no third-party candidate but Perot received more than 1 percent in the survey.
The surveys revealed some difficult, and probably unpopular, political choices for which ever candidate wins the next four years in the White House.
Two of the nation’s largest programs for senior citizens - Social Security and Medicare - are troubled financially. Various plans suggest slowing the growth in those programs, cutting back on benefits or requiring those with more income to pay more for some services.
But fewer than one voter in 10 in either state believes the government should spend less on Medicare. Fewer than one in 10 in Idaho, and fewer than one in 20 in Washington, said the government should reduce the cost-of-living allowance increases for Social Security payments.
“Clearly, these are questions the next president and Congress have to address,” Ali said. “I think people do understand (the problems with both programs) but they just don’t want to face it right now.”
The support for changes to Medicare may be low because an unsuccessful Republican proposal to revise the program is being denounced by a barrage of television commercials in both states.
“The Democrats have done a very effective public relations job and have really demagogued this issue,” he said.
But those commercials, which are usually directed against congressional candidates in the two states, are not cutting into support for Dole in Idaho.
“They may have more influence in Washington, helping Clinton,” who vetoed the GOP plan, Ali said.
The next president may have trouble getting support for any plan to rebuild the Northwest’s dwindling salmon runs, the surveys indicate. Voters in both states are about evenly divided on whether to spend more, less, or about the same amount on such projects.
A slight plurality in Washington says spend more, a slight plurality in Idaho says spend less.
“There’s no overriding consensus. People are not overwhelmingly passionate either way,” Ali said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. The presidential race 2. Where should we spend our money?