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A national polling group wants to crack down on political consultants who spread negative information about opposing candidates under the guise of conducting polls.

These consultants give legitimate polls a bad reputation, complained some members of the American Association of Public Opinion Research at its annual conference this weekend.But there was no agreement on how to curtail this practice, known as "push polling."

The voluntary approach might work, said Sheldon Gawiser, president of the National Council on Public Polls. He said his organization will ask presidential candidates and campaign committees to sign pledges promising not to engage in the practice.

Still, he said, it will be tough to persuade campaigns to stop these polls as long as they help swing public opinion.

"When it doesn't work, it will stop," he said.

Politicians have used push polls for years, but the practice gained widespread attention in February when GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes complained that his drop in opinion polls before Iowa's caucuses was due to push polls conducted by Bob Dole's campaign.

For instance, the Dole campaign asked voters if they would be moreor less likely to back Forbes if they knew he "supported President Clinton's policy allowing gays to serve in the military." In another question, voters were told Forbes' flat-tax plan would raise the taxes of Iowa farmers.

William McInturff, a former Dole pollster, argued these questions are legitimate if they are part of real polls used by the campaign. But it is unethical to use the information to plant rumors without ever compiling the poll results, he said.

Other findings presented at the conference include:

- President Clinton won the battle of the soundbite during the presidential primaries.

Clinton's average soundbite on the three major television networks lasted 11.75 seconds, according to a study by Ted J. Smith III of Virginia Commonwealth University and S. Robert Lichter of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs.

That compares with an average of just 7.12 seconds for Bob Dole, the likely Republican nominee, and just under 7.17 seconds for all Republican candidates.

But while Dole's soundbites were shorter, they were much more frequent. The networks quoted Clinton 91 times between Jan. 1 and March 26, compared with 349 times for Dole.

Clinton had no serious opposition in the Democratic primary, while Dole spent much of the period locked in a sometimes-bitter battle with commentator Pat Buchanan and others.

- Several papers delivered at the conference suggested citizens know quite a bit about the political process. But one study identified a group that may need a remedial course in current events.

The evidence: 20 percent of Americans told researchers from Harvard, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post that the national health insurance plan pushed by Clinton had been approved by Congress.

In fact, neither the House nor the Senate passed Clinton's health insurance bill.