Summit fallout on Senate races
Washington — The collapsed summit in Iceland -- three weeks before nationwide elections -- could have a small but significant effect on several pivotal races for the US Senate. President Reagan's television address to the nation, just hours after his return, was seen as an effort to blunt any political damage from the summit. (White House stresses ``accomplishments'' of Iceland summit. Story, Page 3.)
But political analysts say it will take a couple of weeks for voters to sort out the significance of the talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Analysts say several effects are likely:
Mr. Reagan's influence on Senate races will be somewhat reduced. Democrats knew that a breakthrough in Iceland would bolster GOP candidates. Now that won't happen.
Most Democratic candidates will avoid direct criticism of the President's performance at Reykjavik. They will rally round the White House, even if they disagree with Reagan's decision to turn down a sweeping arms deal.
Voters will probably support the President's summit decision -- in the short run. But debate is expected to grow about his insistence on pursuing his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) at the cost of an arms deal.
Right after the summit, political experts looked to Senate races in Florida, California, and Colorado for clues about its effect. In all three, Democrats shied away from criticism of the President.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham, the Democratic Senate candidate, reacted this way:
``In matters of foreign policy, the United States has one policy at the bargaining table, and that is the President's policy.''
Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, an arms control champion, also is cautious. He laments the lost opportunity for reducing the nuclear threat, but concludes: ``It's hard to assess the blame.''
One survey found that in only two Senate races -- Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- did Democratic challengers attack the President's performance.
Rep. Bob Edgar of Pennsylvania, the Democratic Senate candidate, told the Washington Post that Reagan had ``made a mistake in rushing to a `no' judgment. He should have kept the process going.''
In Wisconsin, Democrat Ed Garvey said the President was taking his marching orders from Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, two military hawks, rather than serving the cause of arms control.
Those Democratic candidates appeared to be the exception, however.
Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, said there seems no way for most Democratic Senate candidates to exploit the issue safely. Mr. Powell suggested that in most states, Democrats would do better if they skipped the whole issue of summitry and concentrated on local economic problems in agriculture, oil, timber, and mining.
Former Senate majority leader Howard Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee told reporters at breakfast on Tuesday that Democrats could be stung if they criticized the summit.
As for SDI, Mr. Baker notes that many Americans will feel that ``anything the Soviets don't like that much must be pretty good.''
But some GOP politicians were clearly disappointed that Reagan came home empty handed. A breakthrough would have been a timely boost for the party.
It now appears that several Senate contests will be decided by as little as one to three percentage points. Republican strategists continue to hope that last-minute appearances by the President will tip the balance.
Republicans now hold a 53-to-47 margin in the Senate. Democrats lead in three states held by the GOP -- Maryland, Florida, and South Dakota. That would give each party 50 seats.
Polls indicate that Senate contests are particularly close in Idaho, North Dakota, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, and Washington.
Few experts are predicting which party will come out on top in the Senate. They say the battle is so close that it could hinge on a couple of thousand votes in a state like Idaho or North Dakota.