HOUSTON — Five Republican presidential candidates expressed skepticism or outright opposition Wednesday night to the nuclear arms reduction treaty President Reagan is negotiating with the Soviet Union, and sharply attacked Vice President George Bush for supporting a pact whose specific contents are not yet known.
But the vice president, appearing with his five rivals for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination in their first nationally televised debate, vigorously defended the nearly completed arms accord, which would eliminate all land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
"This is the first time in the nuclear age that we are getting rid of an entire generation of nuclear weapons, and that's good for my grandchildren and good for the rest of the world," Bush said.
"I'm for it, the President's for it, the Joint Chiefs are for it and I don't see why you can't say, hey, if it's verifiable, it's a good idea to get rid of 1,600 warheads from the Soviet Union, for 400 of ours, and then go on and do what I said, work on conventional forces, work on chemical weapons."
The sharply drawn disagreement over arms control reflects both the intensity of the controversy that will be generated within the Republican Party over the missile accord and also the increasing willingness of all GOP contenders except Bush to break with their weakened President.
On one sensitive and politically volatile subject--what to do about the apparent vulnerability of the nation's economy in the wake of the stock market crash--all six candidates spoke cautiously. Except for Bush and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who have joined Reagan in agreeing to discuss higher revenues as a way of curbing the federal deficit, the GOP hopefuls expressed strong opposition to tax increases.
While professing admiration for Reagan as one of the nation's great chief executives, the five candidates--Dole, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., and former television evangelist Pat Robertson--broke with Administration policy on a wide variety of issues.
Bush, who has made loyalty to Reagan a centerpiece of his campaign, declined an opportunity to identify any differences he may have had with the Administration.
Bush Defends Reagan
In defending the President's continuing efforts to complete the missile treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Bush rebuked his fellow candidates. "It's fine when you're outside carping, criticizing a President," Bush said. "I've found it is very different when you're in there having to make the tough calls."
In an obvious slap at Bush, Dole, running second to the vice president in polls, said: "We shouldn't be cheerleading a treaty when we don't know what's in it."
Kemp also assailed the treaty as an unknown agreement with a country that has violated previous agreements. Robertson called the pact "badly flawed."
Du Pont, interjecting one of the harshest anti-Bush notes in the two-hour debate, said the treaty illustrates what he called a widespread concern about Bush's candidacy:
"Where would he lead America? So far we haven't seen any vision, any principles, any policy. We really haven't had it spelled out very successfully," he said, as boos rose from the audience at the Houston Convention Center.
But the most vehement attack came from Haig, who said the treaty puts too heavy a burden on the West's strategic system of nuclear deterrence, makes conventional war in Europe conceivable and ignores the fact of Soviet aggression around the world. He said it could even be a major step to World War III.
When Bush interrupted at one point to insist that Haig had endorsed the idea of the treaty in a speech several years ago, Haig angrily shot back: "I fought it like the bloody death. I never heard a wimp out of you, not a word."
Bush said he had just returned from an trip to Europe and found that all of the European leaders were in favor of the treaty.
Haig, who also said he had just returned from Europe, retorted that the "arm-twisting" of European leaders to persuade them to support the missile treaty was "unprecedented in my memory," and that in fact most of them were unnerved by the prospect of such a pact.
The debate, carried by the public television network on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" program, produced no obvious winners or losers, but at least the two leading candidates, Bush and Dole, made no costly missteps.
It was the first of six scheduled debates for the GOP contenders and their first joint appearance since the stock market crash.
Dole called for a world economic summit to try to solve the international economic crisis and said: "I don't believe people understand the urgency of the problem and we had better get with it."