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BUSH UNDERESTIMATES STAKES IN EX-SOVIET REPUBLICS, NIXON SAYS

Former President Richard Nixon is criticizing the Bush administration for what he calls its pathetic support of democratic forces in Russia. President Bush said Tuesday "I didn't take it personally."

Bush and the other presidential candidates have erred by not focusing on changes in the former Soviet Union as a campaign issue, Nixon said in a memo to friends and foreign affairs experts."The stakes are high, and we are playing as if it were a penny-ante game," Nixon said in the memo.

At a White House meeting of Republican leaders, Bush said he had talked with Nixon before the newspapers printed their stories.

"I don't think President Nixon and I have any differences on this," he said. "We have a huge stake in the success of democracy in Russia and the other CIS countries." CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States, is composed of 11 former Soviet republics.

Bush said of Nixon's memo, "I didn't take it personally."

Nixon maintained that if President Boris Yeltsin fails to establish a free-market democracy in Russia, all progress gained during last year's revolution will be lost. A failure in Russia could embolden dictators worldwide, he said.

"If Yeltsin is replaced by a new aggressive Russian nationalist, we can kiss the peace dividend goodbye," Nixon wrote. "Not only would the world become more dangerous, but our defense and foreign policies would also become far more expensive."

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(Additional story)

Demos pull even with Bush

President Bush, his public approval rating at an all-time low, is no better than even money against either of the two leading Democratic challengers, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll.

Only 39 percent approved of Bush's handling of the presidency, according to the survey of 1,030 Americans between March 4 and March 8. That is 51 points below his rating in the same survey at the end of the Persian Gulf war a year ago.

According to the poll, Bush was in a dead heat, 44-44, when paired against former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas. Against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Bush was preferred by a scant 46 percent to 44 percent edge - again, too close to call, given the poll's statistical margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

When the poll was limited to just registered voters, Bush ran a few points behind both Democrats. And when pitted against an unnamed Democrat, he trailed both among the general population, 52 to 37, and among registered voters, 54 to 36.

The president's "disapproval" rating among all those surveyed was a solid 58 percent, 8 points worse than the previous high in mid-January.