ROCHESTER, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who asserted in a debate on Sunday that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba, on Monday modified his position in the face of White House and Pentagon statements to the contrary, but refused to back off from his "strong suspicions" that missiles are in place there.
"This was not a gaffe," Robertson said.
Besieged by questions about the missiles Monday, Robertson spoke only of "strong suspicions" that Soviet SS-4 and SS-5 missiles might have been left behind in Cuba after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
As he campaigned in New Hampshire, Robertson said at one point that there are "42 missile sites in Cuba capable of accommodating" Soviet missiles and "the least we can do is get these missiles out of Cuba.
"I'm not going to back off from it," he said, adding with a grin: "I'd be happy to have somebody prove me wrong."
Robertson said that when he mentioned Soviet missiles in Cuba during the Sunday debate, "George Bush and Bob Dole seemed to know nothing about it.
"I am supposed to be an outsider," Robertson said in a news conference here. "Their field of expertise is supposed to be the missile treaties. I know more about it than the two experts."
Robertson said his information came from David Sullivan, a top aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also cited Feb. 4 testimony by Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he agreed when Helms quoted a statement by President Reagan claiming that the Soviet Union had violated a 1962 agreement and provided offensive weapons to Cuba.
"I don't know what offensive weapons means," Robertson told reporters in Dover. "It could mean a bigger class of submarines. It could be various types of bombers. But that usually is a code word for various types of missiles."
But President Reagan's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said in a written statement Monday that "we are confident that the missiles were removed from Cuba" in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, and the missile sites destroyed. Asked if he was saying that there were no such weapons there now, he replied: "exactly."
A senior Pentagon official said in a telephone interview that the United States "looks more closely at Cuba than any place on earth." Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that in the wake of Robertson's allegations, the Defense Department "checked every place they possibly could be," and found "there is nothing to support this allegation. Nothing. Zip."
Helm's aide Sullivan, contacted on Monday, said that "we do not know whether nuclear weapons are in Cuba or not." But he referred to a 1963 committee report that he said made the following assertion: "Reports from refugees, exiles and other human sources insist that strategic missiles and bombers were not removed, but hidden in caves."
With his emphasis on Cuban missiles, Robertson echoed one of Helms' vehement points of attack against the U.S.-Soviet intermediate-range nuclear force treaty, which is backed by Republican front-runners Dole and Bush.
Robertson said that any Soviet missiles in Cuba would not be restricted under the INF treaty. Helms has introduced an amendment to the treaty requiring U.S. inspection of the former missile sites in Cuba.
Bush said in a radio interview Monday that Robertson's claim is "a very serious allegation. You keep hearing outrageous charges from people which are designed to scare the American people."
Another GOP contender, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, called Robertson's claim "a rather rash and unsupportable charge."
Robertson encountered hostile questioning about his Cuban missiles statement at a Chamber of Commerce presidential forum in Dover, and faced further criticism after he delivered a particularly fiery anti-communist speech, in which he said he would have used U.S. tanks to knock down the Berlin Wall when it was erected in 1961 and outlining what he said was a five-point Soviet grand strategy for world domination.
Kent Evans, a Dole supporter from Portsmouth, stood up in the audience and declared: "I'll tell you, I'm standing here really afraid. When you start talking about war the way you just talked about it . . . of taking tanks against the Berlin Wall, of doing all of these things, I'm shaking. I'm really shaking."
Though the audience cheered Evans, Robertson extended his vociferous attack on the Soviet Union, saying: "Communism in my estimation is just as bad as the Nazis." He then turned on the questioner himself: "Maybe you would rather live under communism. I don't know, but I don't. I would rather be free.
"I would do everything to keep this country from war, but folks, if war is thrust upon us there is only one way to deal with it, get in it, win it, and get out," he said.
Staff writers James Gerstenzang, Thomas B. Rosenstiel and Don Irwin contributed to this story.