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MAYBE MANDATE ISN’T AS STRONG AS GINGRICH AND THE GOP THINK

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NEWT WHO?

Bad news, Mr. Speaker-in-waiting, the rest of the country doesn't know you.Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who will become speaker of the House next month, is still a cipher to almost half the American people.

It seems hard to believe, considering how often the loquacious legislator shows up on TV, but a nationwide poll of 1,511 Americans conducted last weekend by the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press found that Gingrich was unfamiliar to 46 percent.

Among those who did know enough about him to judge, the verdict was almost evenly split. Twenty-six percent rated Gingrich favorably; 28 percent unfavorably.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole fared better. Almost everybody knows who Dole is, and 57 percent overall view the Kansas Republican favorably.

But if people don't know Gingrich, they do like his "Contract With America," right?

Not necessarily. Gingrich and the GOP have tried to make much of the mandate voters gave them with the Republican landslide last month. But slightly more than half of the people surveyed said they'd either never heard of or don't know enough about the contract to comment on the blueprint Republican candidates endorsed last fall.

People say their top priority is reducing crime, followed by welfare reform and cutting the budget deficit.

All three are contract items - but they're also problems that President Clinton has focused on.

Right behind those issues on the public's agenda is improving the jobs situation. That's not in the contract, but it's a top priority of Clinton's.

People are less enthusiastic about a school prayer amendment, term limits and cutting the capital gains tax. Republicans have put school prayer on the back burner while they take up term limits and a cut in the capital gains tax early.

All this is good news for Clinton, compared with the survey's other results.

The standing of the Democratic Party is at a historic low, the center reported, and more people now consider themselves Republican than Democrat.

And while Republicans are bullish on Dole, two-thirds of Democrats hope another Democrat will run against Clinton for president in '96. That's got to hurt.

The potential GOP presidential candidate who wins highest ratings - besting Dole, Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm and others - is someone who's never held or even run for public office, and who may or may not even be a Republican.

Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a whopping 69 percent favorability rating overall. Only 10 percent of people have an unfavorable opinion of Powell, and 21 percent say they never heard of him or don't know enough about him to judge.

In Washington, political observers have long been talking about Powell as the ideal vice-presidential candidate with Dole or one of the other GOP heavyweights. This survey suggests the ticket might be the other way around.