Political straws, USA, August 1982

It's only three full weeks now until Labor Day in the US of A. Labor Day is when election campaigns open officially and publicly. The election which is to follow eight weeks later is going to be an interesting event this year. It is when the American voters will have their first chance to say whether they now think Reaganomics is as good a thing as they did two years earlier.

Democrats are high in hope and wishful thinking. Republican leaders are anxious. Their anxiety is attested by a number of current events. One of the more interesting is the withdrawal by the party leaders of support for the campaign of Mr. Prescott Bush in Connecticut. Mr. Bush is not going to run against incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker in the primaries after all.

There is no doubt that the party leaders in Washington and Connecticut would have liked to see Mr. Bush knock off Mr. Weicker.

Mr. Weicker is just about everything a Reagan Republican dislikes. He has repudiated every major element of Reaganomics and voted against most Reagan domestic legislation. He is an avowed ''liberal.'' He was one of the first Republicans to turn against Richard Nixon over Watergate. About the only time he votes straight Republican is when the Senate is being organized.

But right there is a point of some political importance. It was a big thing for the Republicans to win control of the Senate in 1980. They had had it for only eight out of the previous 50 years. They would like to keep it after November's election day. But every vote counts. They have 53 seats out of the 100 in the Senate now. They can't afford to lose even one relatively safe seat.

Sen. Weicker is the only Republican who has won a state-wide office in Connecticut since 1970. He probably can win this time -- provided the Republican Party gets behind him. His Democratic opponent is vigorous and will be riding the tide of anti-Reaganomic sentiment in a state with fairly high unemployment. Mr. Weicker needs all the help he can get.

The Republican leadership had been all set to dump Mr. Weicker and put Mr. Bush, a more ''regular'' Republican, in his place. But had Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Weicker in the primaries -- as was possible -- Mr. Weicker would have run as an independent. In that event the Democrats would almost certainly have taken that Senate seat from the Republicans.

So in Republican councils the desirability of having a nominal Republican when the Senate meets after the November elections triumphed over ideological purity.

The fact that it did tells us how concerned the Republicans are over voter reaction to the state of the American economy.

How justified is this concern?

A mid-July Gallup poll showed either Sen. Edward Kennedy or former Vice-President Walter Mondale leading President Reagan by a comfortable margin. On the other hand, another Gallup poll taken a week earlier showed the President's job performance rating holding steady at 45 percent approving to 45 percent disapproving. This had been constant from the beginning of the year.

According to Gallup calculations this gave Mr. Reagan a ''hard'' or ''committed'' advantage at 57 percent. This compared to a mere 39 percent for former President Carter at the same stage of the Carter administration.

Confidence in the person of Ronald Reagan, in his good will, and in his good intentions obviously runs well ahead of confidence in his economic program.

But are these two elements -- approval of the man, Ronald Reagan, and the depth of that approval -- going to be an important factor this year when the President himself is not on the ballots? They may count later when the American political machine cranks itself up for the 1984 presidential campaign. But the big stakes now are the Senate and House in Washington and governorships and state legislatures.

Mr. Reagan keyed his administration to economics. From the first day of his presidency to the present he has worked hardest at his domestic economic programs. He has been insistent and consistent. It is the centerpiece of his administration. Foreign policy has been handled as a secondary side issue (which is one reason it is in such disarray).

Unless something unexpected and unexpectable happens between now and November's election day the issue this year is to be Reaganomics. That is the way the party and the administration planned it. For better or for worse they probably must stand or fall on that issue. A mid-July Gallup poll showed Americans thinking they are worse off from Reaganomics by 51 percent against 29 percent.

It was prudent of the Republican leaders to decide to keep Mr. Weicker in Connecticut.

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