WASHINGTON — For the 12 major candidates running for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, the question of whether the United States should aid Nicaragua's contras is an easy one. Every Republican says yes and every Democrat says no.
But in written responses to a series of questions from The Times, all the candidates of both parties agreed on one aspect of Central American policy: None was willing to forswear the use of military force in Nicaragua.
"As a general principle, I favor diplomatic initiative over military adventurism," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the most liberal Democrats in the race. But he added: "It is irresponsible for any potential President to reveal in advance his (or) her military contingency plans."
If the candidates displayed a certain consistency on these bedrock questions, however, they differed sharply on the reasons for their positions--and on the basic goals the United States should pursue in seeking a solution to Central America's wars.
Throughout Ronald Reagan's presidency, Central America has proved an emotionally divisive political issue. Reagan has elevated to the highest priority his campaign to aid the contras, the guerrilla army fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. In a series of flip-flops, Congress blocked U.S. military aid for two years beginning in 1984, turned the spigot back on at the end of last year and is now threatening to turn it off again.
Polls have found the public as divided as Congress over what the United States should do about Nicaragua. A majority of the electorate opposes American military aid to the contras, but an equally large majority views the Sandinistas as a threat to U.S. national security.
So it seemed appropriate that Central America would produce one of the presidential election campaign's first gaffes. The perpetrator was Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
"I've got a feeling a little three-day invasion wouldn't make anybody unhappy down there," Dole said in a newspaper interview last month. "You can't find anybody in Central America supporting (Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega."
Dole quickly explained that he was not proposing a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, merely dramatizing his view that Central America's other countries would like to be rid of the leftist regime in their midst.
Still, his response anticipated the refusal of all the presidential candidates of both parties to rule out U.S. military action in Nicaragua.
The Times presented all 12 candidates with four possible situations: a delivery of jet fighters to the Sandinista air force; the stationing of long-range Soviet reconnaissance aircraft in Nicaragua; a Sandinista invasion of another Central American country and Sandinista aid to leftist guerrillas.
The Reagan Administration has already warned that it would respond militarily if the Soviet Union delivered jet fighters to Nicaragua. The Administration also has responded to Sandinista aid to guerrillas in El Salvador by increasing U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government and sending American military advisers there.
Some candidates refused to answer the questions. Vice President George Bush, for example, called them "hypothetical and inappropriate."
But others were more forthcoming. Despite their party's recent history of opposing foreign entanglements, several Democrats made it clear they would actively consider using military force.
"I do not rule out military intervention in circumstances where Nicaragua directly threatened a vital U.S. interest," said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.). If Nicaragua invaded one of its neighbors, he added, that "would clearly warrant U.S. military action."
"We will not tolerate a Soviet strategic base in Nicaragua," said former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. In case of a Sandinista invasion, he noted, several treaties require the United States to respond to a request for military assistance.
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts said: "If the Soviet Union were to introduce offensive weapons such as MIGs (jet fighters) in Nicaragua, that would be grounds for military action."
On the GOP side, Dole hinted that his White House would use U.S. military power--or at least the threat of force--more often. "None of the contingencies outlined are acceptable to the United States," Dole said. "All would be vigorously opposed."
Likewise, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV both said bluntly that they, like President Reagan, would respond forcefully to any deployment of Soviet-supplied jet fighters or reconnaissance planes in Nicaragua. "The United States should make it unequivocally clear that (advanced military aircraft) . . . will not be allowed in Nicaragua," Kemp said.