WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the U.S. delegation that observed the chaotic election in the Philippines, was on his way home to Indiana this week when he received an urgent message from Secretary of State George P. Shultz asking him to come to Washington to try to persuade President Reagan to stand aloof from President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Lugar's press secretary, Mark Helmke, recalled Wednesday that the message reached the Republican lawmaker after his plane had taken off from Manila.
The call to Lugar dramatized the debate going on within the Reagan Administration over the U.S. reaction to the election, which the President first praised as evidence of a strong "two-party system" but later described as "flawed."
Congressional sources said Shultz was concerned that, on the basis of preliminary indications from Manila, Reagan was about to conclude that a Marcos victory was inevitable and that the United States should position itself to continue dealing with Marcos, who has been Philippine president for 20 years.
Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is known to believe that a fair and accurate count of the votes from Friday's election probably would result in a victory for opposition leader Corazon Aquino. Lugar argued that it would be folly for Washington to tie itself too closely to Marcos, although he also counseled against a public endorsement of Aquino to avoid the appearance of outright interference in the counting.
In the White House meeting, Lugar related to Reagan a series of emotional anecdotes dramatizing the enthusiasm of the Filipinos for democracy. A source said he portrayed Aquino supporters as pro-American and pro-democracy, virtually the embodiment of Reagan's own philosophy of supporting democracy around the world.
"We have an opportunity to really do something there," a source quoted Lugar as saying. The source said that Reagan agreed to send veteran diplomat Philip C. Habib to the Philippines to demonstrate U.S. support for democracy.
After the meeting, Reagan assumed an official position of neutrality, although sources said he continues to believe that a Marcos victory would be better for the United States because it would ensure continued access to the strategic Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.
Habib, Reagan Confer
Meanwhile, Habib met for about 10 minutes Wednesday morning with the President, Shultz and national security adviser John M. Poindexter to discuss his new assignment. After the meeting, Habib would say only that he planned to leave for Manila "fairly soon." Other sources said he is expected to depart Friday.
Habib's role was not spelled out. His objective apparently is to persuade Marcos and Aquino to put the bitter election and its disputed vote count behind them and reach some sort of power-sharing agreement.
So far, neither candidate has given any indication that such an arrangement would be acceptable.
"I'll obviously follow the President's instructions," Habib said without disclosing what those instructions were.
Ben Wattenberg, a member of the observer delegation, predicted that Marcos ultimately would have to yield significant power to the opposition, even if he is able to remain in office.
"Marcos, in terms of his own expectations, has lost," Wattenberg, an expert on elections with the American Enterprise Institute, said in a telephone interview. "He didn't call this election to win 51% to 49%. He has already lost the 'mandate of heaven.' "
"For all the corruption that there is, this is part of a very muscular democratic process," Wattenberg said. "You don't see things like this in (Communist) Bulgaria."
However, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, scoffed at the suggestion that Habib--or anyone else--could bring the Marcos and Aquino camps together.
"The prospects of a negotiated settlement in the Philippines are about as good as the prospects of a negotiated settlement between the Muslims and Christians in Lebanon," he said.
In his nationally televised press conference Tuesday night, Reagan said that the election was marred by fraud and violence but that "it could have been that all of that was occurring on both sides."
However, members of the observer group said that only the government was in a position to stuff ballot boxes or engage in other wholesale acts of fraud.
California Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), a member of the delegation, said there is "little question" that Aquino carried most urban centers. But he said Marcos is strong in the countryside.