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Summit Transforms Focus of Candidates on Defense

December 13, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — The Reagan-Gorbachev summit has dramatically altered the campaign debate within and between the two political parties as the critical first caucuses and primaries of the 1988 presidential contest draw near.

By reaching final agreement on one nuclear arms pact, generating claims of significant progress toward another and making further U.S.-Soviet negotiations likely on a broad range of subjects, the historic parley is changing the political environment in which candidates must deal with national security issues.

Indeed, the summit's political impact promises to be much like that of the October Wall Street crash, which transformed the debate on the economy.

Even before the talks, which dominated national attention for four days, strategists in both parties had begun pondering the new opportunities and new challenges confronting White House aspirants.

"Democrats will no longer be able to position Republicans as warmongers," asserted David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a consultant to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a GOP presidential contender.

On the other hand, said Mark Green, head of the Democracy Project, a liberal Democratic think tank, "Republicans will no longer be able to argue that Democrats who call for arms negotiations with the Russians are soft on foreign policy."

Within these broad bounds, though, candidates in both parties will need to muster all their insight and imagination to plot a successful course in a field where public attitudes are as tangled as the complex issue of arms control itself.

The operative word to describe American public opinion on arms talks with the Soviets is "ambivalent," said John Marttila, a Democratic pollster who conducted a pre-summit poll as part of a bipartisan series of surveys called Americans Talk Security.

Poll Shows Popularity

Like other polls, this study showed Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev enjoying tremendous popularity--a positive rating of 66%, with only 22% negative--while the treaty signed last week to ban medium-range missiles was favored by 72% and opposed by only 20%.

But underneath this positive outlook, the survey shows that Americans remain fundamentally skeptical about Soviet intentions. Half of those polled agreed with the statement that "because the Soviets will not keep their end of the bargain, we should not sign any agreements limiting nuclear arms." Another 45% disagreed.

What all this portends, as Marttila and other analysts point out, is the possibility that public opinion could shift if unexpected problems develop with the treaty or if the Soviets' actions in other fields seem to belie Gorbachev's harmonious rhetoric.

Setting aside such uncertainties, strategists in both parties agree that the summit, the treaty and the anticipated new era of U.S.-Soviet good will all add up to political benefits for the GOP.

'Indisputable Plus'

"It's an indisputable plus for the Republicans," conceded Democrat Green. Reagan's signing of the treaty, he said, "has taken off the table" the frequently used Democratic argument that GOP leadership in foreign policy would increase the risks of nuclear war and that Reagan's hard-line rhetoric and massive defense buildup would make such progress impossible.

For Republicans, the boost is all the more welcome because they are counting on it to offset any loss of faith in their management of the economy in the wake of the turmoil on Wall Street and the threat posed by the budget and trade deficits.

Some analysts see Republican gains threatened by vociferous opposition to the medium-range missile pact from hard-line conservative activists, whose support is being intensely sought by dark-horse Republican presidential contenders.

Among the six candidates, only Vice President George Bush unequivocally supports the treaty. Dole says he wants time to study it, although he told Gorbachev last week that he would help produce a "big vote" in the Senate for the treaty. The other four--former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former TV evangelist Pat Robertson--have all expressed opposition to the treaty in its present form.

Gift for Democrats?

"The Democrats have been given a little gift here," said American Enterprise Institute analyst Norman Ornstein. Attacks within the party, he contended, have diverted attention from Reagan's achievement.

But others contend that the President's sharpest critics on the treaty are speaking mostly for themselves. "Even Republicans who consider themselves conservatives" mostly back the treaty, GOP pollster Linda DiVall said.

If the treaty turns out to be a plus for the GOP overall, many people expect the biggest gainer to be Bush, the front-runner, if only because he is most closely linked with Reagan.

"It helps the President, and that helps the Republican Party, and that helps George Bush," said Richard Williamson, a Bush adviser and former Reagan White House staffer.

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