DES MOINES — With the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting only days away and a nationally televised debate scheduled tonight on NBC, Republican candidates for President find themselves torn over the most curious of questions: Is Ronald Reagan going soft on the Soviets?
"The President would never sign a dumb treaty!" Vice President George Bush said emphatically.
Among the GOP candidates, however, Bush is a chorus of one in wholehearted support for the proposed U.S.-Soviet treaty eliminating medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Reagan is expected to sign the treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev next week.
The five other GOP contenders have expressed everything from worrisome reservations to outright opposition.
At work, experts agree, is generations-deep conservative mistrust of the Soviets, and the power that these conservatives wield in the Republican nominating process.
GOP candidates Rep. Jack Kemp, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., former television evangelist Pat Robertson and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV all argue that removing the missiles will leave Western Europe unprepared to counter superior Soviet conventional forces.
"And the United States is then made vulnerable because our main defense becomes the intercontinental ballistic missile, where the Soviets have an overwhelming advantage," Haig maintains, according to spokesman Dan Mariaschin.
"Suspicion of communism and hostility toward the Soviet Union are one of the few things that have remained constant in the Republican Party over the last 70 years," said Michael Robinson, associate professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
The result in the politics of 1987 is potentially the widest rift yet between the Reagan Administration and its conservative base, not to mention the sharpest issue distinction between candidate Bush and his rivals.
"Recent events have liberated conservatives from the President . . . (and) candidates are beginning to realize that, whatever advantages there are to loyalty to Reagan, those are accruing to George Bush--nobody is going to steal that away from him," said treaty critic Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus in Washington.
"We wanted, frankly, to give the President the benefit of doubt on the treaty," said Robertson press spokesman Scott Hatch. "But we just don't think it's going to help the American position."
Polls generally show the American public in favor of arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union. But that does not reflect the power of anti-communist activists who can be rallied by opposition to a treaty.
"People who are active in nominating the Republican presidential candidate are driving everyone to the right except for Bush, and he doesn't have any choice in this one," said Larry Berg of the USC Institute of Politics.
Most Republicans are keenly attentive right now to the moves of Bush's apparent chief rival, Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas. He, like Bush, is looking beyond early primaries to a campaign fight for support of moderate and independent voters. And he also is a principal figure in the impending Senate ratification debate on the so-called INF treaty.
So far, Dole has voiced a skeptical wait-and-see attitude. This was reinforced again last Friday when Dole met with Secretary of State George P. Shultz to discuss treaty provisions for verification that the missiles are actually being dismantled.
After the meeting, Dole issued a statement saying he was "pleased" with what he had heard. But he suggested, without elaboration: "In my view, the President may well be supportive of initiatives we develop on the Hill to strengthen the treaty."
Such changes, Dole added, "would not necessarily require another negotiating round with the Soviets."
Kemp and Haig also have joined in raising the subject of Senate modifications of the treaty--a tricky business that can range from attaching mere political statements or expressed "reservations" to substantive changes or additions that would embarrass the Administration or force reopening of negotiations.
"As it stands now, he couldn't support it," said Kemp's press secretary, John Buckley. "There's a chance, though, the Senate will improve it."
Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic candidates for President have largely embraced the treaty as a constructive step to reduce superpower tensions.
And therein lies an irony of the unfolding presidential campaign.
As Kemp spokesman Buckley put it: "If you would have told me four years ago that the Democrats would be supporting Ronald Reagan in his dealings with the Russians and the Republicans would be fighting him, I would have said you're crazy. But politics is a crazy business."