Summit Transforms Focus of Candidates on Defense

Times Political Writer

The Reagan-Gorbachev summit has dramatically altered the campaign debate within and between the two political parties as the critical first caucuses and primaries of the 1988 presidential contest draw near.

By reaching final agreement on one nuclear arms pact, generating claims of significant progress toward another and making further U.S.-Soviet negotiations likely on a broad range of subjects, the historic parley is changing the political environment in which candidates must deal with national security issues.

Indeed, the summit's political impact promises to be much like that of the October Wall Street crash, which transformed the debate on the economy.

Even before the talks, which dominated national attention for four days, strategists in both parties had begun pondering the new opportunities and new challenges confronting White House aspirants.

"Democrats will no longer be able to position Republicans as warmongers," asserted David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a consultant to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a GOP presidential contender.

On the other hand, said Mark Green, head of the Democracy Project, a liberal Democratic think tank, "Republicans will no longer be able to argue that Democrats who call for arms negotiations with the Russians are soft on foreign policy."

Within these broad bounds, though, candidates in both parties will need to muster all their insight and imagination to plot a successful course in a field where public attitudes are as tangled as the complex issue of arms control itself.

The operative word to describe American public opinion on arms talks with the Soviets is "ambivalent," said John Marttila, a Democratic pollster who conducted a pre-summit poll as part of a bipartisan series of surveys called Americans Talk Security.

Poll Shows Popularity

Like other polls, this study showed Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev enjoying tremendous popularity--a positive rating of 66%, with only 22% negative--while the treaty signed last week to ban medium-range missiles was favored by 72% and opposed by only 20%.

But underneath this positive outlook, the survey shows that Americans remain fundamentally skeptical about Soviet intentions. Half of those polled agreed with the statement that "because the Soviets will not keep their end of the bargain, we should not sign any agreements limiting nuclear arms." Another 45% disagreed.

What all this portends, as Marttila and other analysts point out, is the possibility that public opinion could shift if unexpected problems develop with the treaty or if the Soviets' actions in other fields seem to belie Gorbachev's harmonious rhetoric.

Setting aside such uncertainties, strategists in both parties agree that the summit, the treaty and the anticipated new era of U.S.-Soviet good will all add up to political benefits for the GOP.

'Indisputable Plus'

"It's an indisputable plus for the Republicans," conceded Democrat Green. Reagan's signing of the treaty, he said, "has taken off the table" the frequently used Democratic argument that GOP leadership in foreign policy would increase the risks of nuclear war and that Reagan's hard-line rhetoric and massive defense buildup would make such progress impossible.

For Republicans, the boost is all the more welcome because they are counting on it to offset any loss of faith in their management of the economy in the wake of the turmoil on Wall Street and the threat posed by the budget and trade deficits.

Some analysts see Republican gains threatened by vociferous opposition to the medium-range missile pact from hard-line conservative activists, whose support is being intensely sought by dark-horse Republican presidential contenders.

Among the six candidates, only Vice President George Bush unequivocally supports the treaty. Dole says he wants time to study it, although he told Gorbachev last week that he would help produce a "big vote" in the Senate for the treaty. The other four--former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former TV evangelist Pat Robertson--have all expressed opposition to the treaty in its present form.

Gift for Democrats?

"The Democrats have been given a little gift here," said American Enterprise Institute analyst Norman Ornstein. Attacks within the party, he contended, have diverted attention from Reagan's achievement.

But others contend that the President's sharpest critics on the treaty are speaking mostly for themselves. "Even Republicans who consider themselves conservatives" mostly back the treaty, GOP pollster Linda DiVall said.

If the treaty turns out to be a plus for the GOP overall, many people expect the biggest gainer to be Bush, the front-runner, if only because he is most closely linked with Reagan.

"It helps the President, and that helps the Republican Party, and that helps George Bush," said Richard Williamson, a Bush adviser and former Reagan White House staffer.

Bush himself seems convinced that there are political benefits to be reaped from the good feelings generated by the summit and the treaty. Invited to the Soviet Embassy for a breakfast with Gorbachev, Bush sought to take full advantage by bringing along Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire--site of the nation's first presidential primary--as well as a former congressman and a high school principal from Iowa, which begins picking its national convention delegates the week before the New Hampshire primary.

But some also see an eventual opportunity for Dole, who will play a central role in the battle to secure the treaty's Senate ratification, even though Dole's critics have accused him of straddling the issue.

"As you get in the early part of next year, when you are dealing with ratification of the treaty in the Senate, it helps Dole," said pollster DiVall, who personally is neutral in the race for the nomination. "He'll be giving it that cold-eyed look people want, and he'll be dealing with individual senators and getting their votes for the treaty."

The other Republican contenders seem to be banking on a rising tide of public feeling against the proposed pact, at least among GOP activists.

"They assume that voters in Republican primaries will be ideologically so opposed to the treaty that they will be able to use that to create a Panama Canal sort of issue," said Dole adviser Keene. But he doubts that opposition to the arms treaty, unlike that to the 1977 treaties giving Panama ultimate control of its canal, is strong enough to support the hopes of the four candidates who are competing for such backing.

Strategists for candidates opposing the treaty hope public opinion will shift against the agreement as the Senate debate unfolds.

sh Opportunity Possible

Moreover, some feel that continuing negotiations with the Soviets over long-range weapons could create a political opportunity for candidates skeptical of the new approach to Soviet relations, particularly if the United States appears to be making concessions over President Reagan's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as "Star Wars."

"SDI is a very popular weapons system," insisted Jeff Bell, campaign coordinator for Kemp, a strong supporter of the proposed defense shield. "If SDI is going to be given away, that would be a very big issue and it would help Kemp."

As for the Democrats, differences between the six contenders for the presidential nomination are relatively slight. All the Democrats support the medium-range missile treaty, oppose early deployment of SDI and support deep cuts in long-range missiles.

Nevertheless, as further negotiations with the Soviets go forward, arms control is likely to play a significant role in the Democratic campaign, if only because the little-known Democratic candidates are unlikely to ignore any issue of consequence.

"Arms control is not just going to be an abstract issue now," said Richard Moe, a key aide in the 1984 Walter F. Mondale presidential campaign and now an adviser to Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's drive for the Democratic nomination. "I think there is going to be more of a focus on how each candidate will approach negotiations with the Russians."

The Gorbachev Factor

In the absence of great substantive policy differences, arguments are likely to center on each candidate's qualifications for dealing with Gorbachev.

Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. appears to enjoy an early advantage because, more than any of his rivals, he has earned a reputation for expertise in the arms control field. He has tried to exploit that asset by depicting himself as more realistic on defense issues than the other Democrats.

"What Gore brings to the table is his experience and familiarity with the arms control issue," said Gore's pollster, Mark Mellman.

But other Democratic candidates are not going to take back seats. "If we were just going to rely on credentials, the winner would be George Bush," said Susan Estrich, campaign manager for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

"Ultimately, voters will decide whether this guy is somebody they want sitting across the table from Gorbachev not on the basis of the votes and trips he has made but on his character and understanding and commitment," she added.

Question of Confidence

In the past, as Gephardt acknowledged in a speech on defense earlier this fall, the Democratic Party "has been equated, fairly or unfairly, with softheadedness and faintheartedness" on the defense issue."

"It is a basic question of confidence that we face, a test of credibility that we must meet," he said.

Less Criticism Seen

But the treaty and hopes for increased amity between Washington and Moscow seem to make the Democrats less likely to face such criticism. And University of California Berkeley political scientist Austin Ranney suggests this mood change opens the way for some Democratic contenders to make the argument that "now that we don't need such big expenditures for nuclear weapons, we can reduce the deficit and still pay for social programs."

Thus, in a debate Thursday night in New York, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon promised that by the third year of his presidency he could save $20 billion in the federal budget by cutting military spending by 6%, funds that presumably could be used to help finance such Simon projects as a jobs program.

In a Des Moines debate on arms control issues earlier this fall and on a number of other occasions, Simon has contended that tensions in U.S.-Soviet relations stem from a lack of understanding. "And yet the present course is this," he complained. "We are spending more and more on weapons and less on understanding.

"Imagine that a few decades ago, Mikhail Gorbachev was an exchange student for one year at Ronald Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College, and Ronald Reagan was an exchange student for one year at Mikhail Gorbachev's alma mater, the University of Moscow," Simon said.

"I believe that if that had taken place we'd be living in a different world today."

Dukakis Hits Concept

That stress on understanding has already drawn fire from Dukakis, currently Simon's chief rival in Iowa. And the differences between the two candidates' positions reflect the tension between hope and apprehension that marks public attitudes toward the Soviet Union--a tension that poses both opportunities and potential pitfalls for the candidates.

Discussing the causes for friction between the United States and the Soviets in a pre-summit speech earlier this month at the University of New Hampshire, Dukakis said: "Some say it's just a misunderstanding, that if we only knew each other better the differences would disappear.

"But the problems aren't that simple," Dukakis went on, "because it wasn't just a misunderstanding that denied Yuri Speizman the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union until he'd contracted cancer.

"So that, after years of waiting, he died the day after leaving Moscow, the day before he could have seen his grandchildren in Israel for the first time."

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