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Low-Key Senator Unlikely Choice as Democrat Spokesman : Sasser: New Approach on Contras

April 07, 1986|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

HUMBOLDT, Tenn. — John Doggett was the first to raise his hand when Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) asked the few dozen constituents who had gathered in the basement of City Hall here last week what they had on their minds.

"My concern is communists on the mainland of America," Doggett said angrily. "You have been the principal spokesman against . . . aid to the contras-- or freedom fighters, as I call them."

Doggett was right: Sasser's soft, high-pitched Tennessee drawl has in fact become the most prominent Democratic voice on Central American policy. And while Sasser's position on the issue does not satisfy some of his more conservative critics, he symbolizes Democrats' efforts to broaden their party's appeal on foreign policy.

Unlikely Figure

Sasser, a low-key moderate who holds no seat on any of the Senate's principal foreign policy-making committees, would seem an unlikely person to have emerged as a central figure in this year's debate over providing military funds to the contras , as the rebels fighting to oust Nicaragua's Sandinista government are called.

"If you're looking for a strong, forceful person, he would not be the person I would pick," one Republican strategist said.

Nonetheless, it was Sasser the Democrats chose several weeks ago to be their gladiator in the arena where President Reagan is strongest: He was placed before the network cameras to present the Democratic response to Reagan's nationally televised appeal for contra aid.

It was a dramatic turn from the powerful and blistering rhetoric that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat from liberal Connecticut, had used to counter a Reagan speech on Central America in 1983. Sasser's was a new approach--spoken, he said in his speech, "as the father of a 17-year-old son," who might some day be called upon to fight in Central America.

"It's a natural that the party turned to someone from the South, someone who is moderate in orientation, to try to build a case for the opposition," said Thomas E. Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Assn. in Washington. "It strikes me as a pretty sensible move tactically, although what happens in the end remains to be seen."

Defeat, Victory

Thus far, the results are mixed. The Administration suffered a narrow defeat in the Democratic-controlled House, followed by a slim victory in the Senate after negotiations between the White House and Democrats, led by Sasser, failed to yield a compromise. Now the issue is back to the House, where another vote is scheduled later this month.

Sasser's own evolution on the issue--from opposition to the humanitarian aid Congress approved last year to acknowledgment this year that the contras should be kept as "a force in being"--reflects a shift among many of his Democratic colleagues.

His alternative aid plan, which would allow humanitarian aid immediately and military aid only after Congress was satisfied with Administration efforts to negotiate with the Sandinistas, failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Significantly, however, the proposal drew support from almost 30 Democrats who last year had voted with Sasser against all contra aid.

Democratic leaders believe they are on the right side politically and cite public opinion polls to back up their contention that Americans are uncomfortable with current U.S. policy in Central America. However, most on Capitol Hill say it is a virtual certainty that Reagan eventually will get the aid he has requested, so Democrats have focused on influencing the timing of the funds and the conditions attached to them.

Keen Instinct Cited

Sasser's position also has been shaped by a keen instinct for the political cross-currents in this bedrock conservative state, where the 49-year-old former Democratic Party chairman had staged a dramatic 1976 upset over incumbent William E. Brock III, now secretary of labor.

Certainly, residents of Humboldt's neighboring town of Henderson, which prides itself as the site on which the violent law-and-order cult movie "Walking Tall" was filmed, would not consider themselves the type to back down from a fight. But some are concerned about spending millions, and possibly billions, of dollars on a conflict in Central America when they have needs at home.

A young man wearing overalls and a cap sporting a Heinold Hog Markets logo complained to Sasser during a stop in Henderson: "How can the government borrow money (to finance the deficit) and then be turning right around and giving it away? . . . . That doesn't make good sense, right there now."

"A lot of people feel that way," the senator agreed.

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