ATLANTA — Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson on Wednesday claimed he once knew where U.S. hostages were being held in Lebanon, setting off yet another round of charges and countercharges that have come to dominate his campaign.
Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, told a morning news conference that CBN identified and broadcast "the location of those hostages in Lebanon very shortly after they were taken, and they were in a position where they could have been rescued" if the United States had moved swiftly.
Told of Robertson's statement, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater asked: "Why didn't he tell us where they were?"
In a nationally televised news conference Wednesday night, President Reagan said that if Robertson knew anything of the hostages' whereabouts, it was "very strange" that "he kept it to himself."
"I can only say this," Reagan said. "It would be very strange if he did have information . . . isn't it strange that no one in our Administration was apprised of it."
Robertson later explained that he did not mean current hostages but rather those taken and later freed in a 1985 Trans World Airlines hijacking.
Rival presidential candidates Vice President George Bush and New York Rep. Jack Kemp both reacted to his comments, with Kemp demanding that Robertson apologize to the families of the current hostages "whom he has needlessly hurt in an attempt to gain publicity," and Bush voicing doubts that Robertson "knew with pinpoint accuracy where those people were."
The exchanges Wednesday repeated a pattern, which might be called controversy du jour in the Robertson campaign.
In recent days, Robertson has:
--Said he believes the Soviet Union has nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Defense Department has denied it.
--Implied that Bush's campaign pulled a series of "dirty tricks" on him, including engineering the sex scandal involving television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. When pressed for proof Wednesday, Robertson exhorted reporters to find the proof themselves.
--Refused to attend a GOP debate in Dallas, asserting that the audience was "stacked" in favor of the vice president and that questions had been given to Bush in advance. Organizers of the debate denied the charges.
Each new claim sends reporters scrambling to write stories, check facts and gather reaction. At the same time, the objects of Robertson's remarks--lately Bush--are forced to respond. Meanwhile, Robertson goes on to another charge, sometimes trailing "clarifications" behind him.
For example, on Wednesday, after Bush demanded an apology from Robertson for linking his campaign to the reports of Swaggart's troubles, Robertson said that he had never directly charged that Bush had sabotaged his campaign.
'Part of Our Strategy'
Robertson campaign officials said Wednesday that the series of extraordinary assertions were not merely calculated to gain attention. "This is not part of our strategy," said Patrick Caldwell, a top Robertson aide and confidant. When Robertson's comments bring a flurry of reaction, "most of the time, Pat says, 'what's the big deal, I don't think that's controversial,' " Caldwell said.
Thomas L. Connelly, chairman of the history department at the University of South Carolina, noted Wednesday that what appears to be "shooting from the hip is squarely in the tradition of a Southern fundamental minister. . . . Instead of addressing a complex policy, he uses anecdotes."
Connelly, author of several books and an expert on Southern religious culture, said that such a "simplistic view" can work politically, as it did for President Reagan. For example, people knew instantly what Reagan meant when he referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."
Political analysts contend that Robertson's remarks will succeed in galvanizing his core supporters, mostly religious conservatives but are unlikely to broaden his base of support.
Compared to Wallace
William Schneider, a political analyst for The Times, said Robertson is playing "get-out-the-vote politics," but that like George C. Wallace, the Alabama segregationist, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the liberal black candidate, "the source of his support is the limit of his support."
For example, after he engaged a WGST radio reporter here in a contentious interview Wednesday about his earlier remarks regarding the hostages, several listeners telephoned to criticize Robertson.
Throughout the region, Robertson's "negatives" in opinion polls run high. "The only person with a higher negative rating is the Ayatollah Khomeini," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and close observer of the presidential race.
But at the same time, Robertson gives hope to others.