Even as White House aides worked feverishly on a last-ditch strategy for saving John Tower's nomination as defense secretary, they were confronted Sunday with fresh evidence of just how hard that task will be.
The rescue plan was put together in weekend meetings and frantic telephone calls between Frederick D. McClure, the chief White House lobbyist, and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who was traveling with President Bush in Asia. The strategy involves holding the support of all 45 GOP senators while President Bush wins over a handful of the Senate's 55 Democrats through personal meetings in the Oval Office on Tuesday.
But on Sunday, Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, one of at least two wavering Republicans, said in an interview that "I'm leaning very much against" the nominee because of Tower's lucrative dealings with defense contractors after he left the Senate. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole seemed visibly surprised when reporters at a press conference Sunday informed him of Pressler's statements.
And one of the Democrats Bush hoped to persuade, Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii, told The Times he has turned down an invitation to meet with Bush and plans to vote no. "It's headed for defeat," Matsunaga said. "I don't think they can get five Democrats and they'll probably lose a few Republicans."
The statements by Pressler and Matsunaga reflect the daunting dimensions of the obstacles facing White House strategists. Among the problems:
--The allegations of drinking, womanizing and carrying on unusually lucrative consultant relationships with major defense contractors cover such a wide spectrum and concern matters of such sensitivity for a Pentagon chief that rebutting all of them can be difficult.
"If you want to oppose John Tower, you can say, 'Oh there's this,' " and then ask, " 'What about this, and what about this?' " said Dole. If opponents shift from one objection to another, he added, "That game you can't win."
Nunn's Influence Key
--Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who led the inquiry that resulted in the committee's 11-9 party-line vote against Tower, is a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who enjoys enormous influence in the area of national defense and commands particular support among the Southern Democrats Bush is targeting for conversion.
"If Nunn is deadly serious and puts his prestige on the line, then it's over," said one longtime Republican operative who was consulted in developing the White House strategy.
--As the confrontation has sharpened, partisan lines have inevitably begun to harden. A straight party-line vote on the floor would be fatal for Bush. Recognizing that, Dole sought to turn down the heat:
"What we need to do is start backing away from what appears to be right now a pitched partisan battle," Dole said at a hastily called press conference. "Why don't we reassess it, sit down like we do on a lot of things? . . . We are men and women of good will there."
Historically, presidents have almost always been given a free hand in selecting members of their Cabinet. And the present Senate has raised few questions about Bush's nominees--except for Tower.
In addition to Matsunaga, Democrats on the White House target list who could be reached Sunday offered little encouragement to the White House efforts.
Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), for example, said Tower's pledge to stop drinking entirely if confirmed could be "a positive thing." But, he said: "There's a higher question: Is he the best we can find? . . . It's not just the drinking thing, it's a character thing."
On the Republican side, White House vote counters concede they are unsure of Sens. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa in addition to Pressler. Grassley, whose mail has been running heavily against Tower, said Sunday that "no senator should state his position until he has read the (FBI) report," which he has not yet done.
Kassebaum has said that if she were in Tower's position, she would withdraw.
"People now are beginning to make their minds up," said Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, a Democratic moderate. "It would take a sharp, dramatic turnaround" to change them.
Mail Volume Grows
In addition, as Grassley's example shows, the growing volume of constituent mail telling senators to vote against Tower has complicated the White House effort.
To counter those problems, Bush advisers say they hope to use everything from traditional pork barrel pitches aimed at military installations in senators' states to appeals to personal and family ties. And they maintain that Tower substantially helped the cause with his televised temperance pledge Sunday.
"Yesterday, I'd say 90-10 against," said one White House adviser in describing the odds on Tower's winning Senate confirmation. "Today, I'd say 60-40. Sixty-forty ain't great, but it's better than it was."
Two Democrats whom Bush aides consider crucial are Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. Bentsen and Tower served together in the Texas delegation for many years. And Bentsen gave Tower a warm introduction to the Armed Services Committee when it began the confirmation process, though the former Democratic vice presidential candidate has not indicated how he will vote on the floor.
As for the liberal Dodd, he is thought to be sympathetic to the nominee because Tower years ago was one of a small number of senators who voted no when the Senate censured Dodd's father, the late Sen. Thomas Dodd.
In his meetings, aides say, Bush will emphasize the nearly unprecedented nature of a Senate rejection of a President's Cabinet choice and argue that the blow would weaken his ability to work with foreign leaders on defense issues. In addition, he may appeal to several senators who are former governors by arguing that they should understand the importance of a chief executive being able to pick the members of his own team, an aide said.
Jeopardize State Interests
In the end, Administration aides are also counting on senators "not wanting to jeopardize military interests in their states" by being the vote that kills the nomination, a key aide said.
Ironically, the senators whom Bush is most counting on to save the nomination--conservative and moderate Southern and Border State Democrats--may be among those who would find Tower most difficult to support. Nunn has been for several years a key leader of conservative Democrats who favor a stronger defense, and his like-minded Senate colleagues have substantial political reasons for wanting to see his stature increase.
In addition, aides say senators from conservative states are the ones who have been hearing most often from constituents upset by the allegations of personal misconduct by Tower.
Staff writers William J. Eaton, Sara Fritz and Paul Houston contributed to this story.
A DATE WITH THE PRESIDENT President Bush, needing at least five Democratic votes to win Senate approval of John Tower as defense secretary, has invited 12 Democratic senators to the White House for a lobbying pitch Tuesday. They include: 1. Lloyd Bentsen, Texas . . . A fellow Texan who accompanied Tower at the beginning of Senate hearings on the nomination. 2. Bill Bradley, New Jersey . . . Generally open-minded senator who supported Reagan on Contra aid, was allied with him on tax revision. 3. John B. Breaux, Louisiana . . . Like other Southern conservatives, shares many of Tower's views on defense. 4. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut . . Liberal but may feel grateful that Tower defended his father, the late Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), against censure by the Senate in 1967. 5. Bob Graham, Florida . . . Southern conservative, former governor who may be sympathetic to the argument that a chief executive should be able to pick his own advisers. 6. Howell Heflin, Alabama . . . Southern conservative who calls himself a friend of Tower. 7. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina . . . Southern conservative, former governor. 8. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii . . . Worked closely with Tower on several Senate issues. 9. J. Bennett Johnston, Louisiana . . . Southern conservative. 10. Charles S. Robb, Virginia . . . Southern conservative, former governor. 11. Terry Sanford, North Carolina . . . Southern conservative, former governor. 12. Spark M. Matsunaga, Hawaii . . . Worked closely with Tower on several Senate issues, but has already turned down invitation and has announced his opposition.