WHAT gives continued life to the Iran-contra story is something that goes beyond the criticism from political opponents of the President and the push behind it from much of the Washington media: Many of those Americans who would normally be in Mr. Reagan's camp are among those who are most distressed by the American arms shipments to Iran. This Iran affair is no Watergate. But in both episodes the Presidents were (and this President still is) under heavy fire from liberals who hadn't cared too much for them in the first place. But there was a hard core of anticommunists who never gave up on Richard Nixon. Even after the tapes had clearly shown Mr. Nixon's personal involvement in the cover-up, many supporters stayed loyal. Indeed, when Nixon was at his lowest ebb, the polls showed that about one-fourth of the US public was still behind him.
Again, the Iran-contra affair is far removed from Watergate. It was not a break-in but a foreign policy shift - Reagan's decision to deal with Iran when he had said he would do no such thing - that ignited the criticism that has been heaped on him of late. On the diversion of funds to the contras: No one is saying he personally directed that wild scheme.
Also, Reagan remains relatively popular, though his poll standing has dropped considerably from where it was before this Iran story broke.
The public was never warmly attached to Nixon; thus, his standing with the voters plummeted quite early in the divulgences on Watergate and kept going down.
The right-wing anticommunists who stayed with Nixon are still to be counted among those who are giving Reagan his respectable popularity standing. But it seems that to ``like'' Reagan can be one thing - to fully support his recent actions in Iran is another. While still giving Reagan their support, a lot of conservatives are really saying, ``Two cheers for Reagan.''
They are as upset over these shipments to Iran as are any of the President's liberal critics. Their voices may not be distinctly heard in the clamor against Reagan. But neither are their voices heard in his defense. Indeed, one might well ask: Is there anyone defending US dealings with Iran - except for a few Mideast experts who are saying it was right for the President to try to make moves to shore up ``moderate'' elements in Iran, if they could be found?
The problem here, of course, is that there is no evidence as yet that the arms shipments did more than strengthen Ayatollah Khomeini.
The fact of the matter is that many conservatives are losing patience with Reagan. They think he never had given a wholehearted push to their social agenda, calling for prayer in the schools, an end to abortion, and suppression of pornography. And now they see what they think is a stupid, even unconscionable dealing with Iran. To be sure, these strong anticommunist ideologues aren't unhappy about the Nicaraguan contras getting some of the funds from the Iranian deal. But overall, they are not at all pleased about the divulgence of an operation which will make it more difficult to pry more aid from Congress for the contras.
Reporters and columnists are able to sense this relative but real falloff in support for Reagan among conservatives - at least on this Iran affair. One could not write anything that was the least bit critical of Nixon's Watergate performance without receiving many angry letters from his loyalists. But while many Republicans feel deeply that the press has been responsible for fueling this story - and for picking on Reagan - they aren't at all quick to show their displeasure over some criticism. At least, they don't seem upset enough to write many letters.
One could conclude that Reagan's popularity is probably a bit thin. One could theorize that as much as the public loves this President, his popularity might not be able to withstand revelations that showed that he - like Nixon - actually had his hand in the cookie jar. It's questionable, too, whether there would be that hard-core conservative element that would stay behind him to the bitter end. The Iran story, however, isn't heading in that direction. What is happening instead - and without people really noticing it - is that Reagan has hurt himself among the very voters who have helped him the most in moving him forward in public life.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.