Meese says he knew little about Iran arms. Iran-contra scandal will hurt GOP, governors say

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The political impact of Iran-contra has now reached across the United States, from the farms of Kansas to the hamlets of Vermont. A number of the nation's governors, including some Republicans, say the widespread effect of the Iran-contra scandal has probably damaged the Reagan White House for the duration of the President's term.

Although President Reagan's support in the polls may rise somewhat, the Republican White House will be politically weakened in its struggles with the Democratic Congress, according to chief executives interviewed here at the annual convention of the National Governors' Association.

Governors also make these points:

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There is a growing sense in the country that it is ``time for Congress to get on with the other business of the country, such as the budget deficit,'' according to Gov. Kay Orr (R) of Nebraska.

The scandal has been detrimental to the Republican Party, but ``not like Watergate,'' says Gov. Mike Hayden (R) of Kansas.

The Iran-contra affair, which resulted in part from Mr. Reagan's ``hands off'' management style, will increase the public's demand for a candidate in 1988 who is a ``nuts and bolts'' administrator, says Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D) of Vermont, who adds: ``Charisma is not enough.''

The governors say the dramatic testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North, Rear Adm. John Poindexter, and Secretary of State George Shultz brought the full impact of Iran-contra home to the public.

Governor Kunin says that no matter whose testimony one believes, Reagan will be badly hurt. If the President did not know what was going on, he failed to take charge. If he did, he tried to fool the American public. Either way he loses, she says.

Gov. James Martin (R) of North Carolina, however, says the Iran-contra hearings served another important purpose.

``The hearings gave a forum to discuss the real issues in Central America, including the danger of losing a number of friendly countries in that region. It got the public's attention because of North and Poindexter. They were, for the first time, able to tell what was at stake.''

The result of that testimony was ``like mines exploding in the Congress. There has been a very positive reaction to Colonel North - not just what he said, but the strength of character of the man.''

Another Republican, Governor Hayden of Kansas, was less sanguine. He concludes of the scandal:

``It will have an impact on the last 18 months of Ronald Reagan's term. ... It could erode confidence in Reagan, who was the most popular second-term President in modern history. After this, public confidence to follow the President is diminished.''

Yet several governors were careful to differentiate Iran-contra from Watergate, a scandal that brought the Republican Party to its knees in the mid-'70s.

Mr. Hayden suggests that GOP candidates for 1988 have hardly been affected by the scandal. Even Vice-President George Bush, the candidate closest to the White House, was just ``stalled a little,'' Hayden says. ``But Bush certainly wasn't fatally damaged,'' as President Gerald Ford was in 1976.

Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, says that to him, the ``most shocking'' testimony in the Iran-contra hearings has come from Secretary Shultz.

``Here was a decent man, trying to do his job, and ... all the while the Poindexter White House was engaged in its own secret activities. ... This is very, very troubling to the American people. It goes beyond partisanship, and the result is that the credibility of the White House is shot.''

Like other governors, Mr. Dukakis says the scandal will prompt the American people to look for a ``hands-on, in-control, in-charge, strong leader in 1988.'' Even so, ``this is no guarantee for the Democrats,'' Dukakis concedes.

One of the state leaders hardest on the Reagan White House was former Republican Gov. William Milliken of Michigan.

``When the meaning of what they have done sinks in ... it will be a negative'' for the GOP, Mr. Milliken says. The actions of Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter showed contempt for the rule of law, he asserts.

``That's not what America is about.''

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