Election '80 -- Senate 'liberals' turn right

Look who's boosting the B-1 bomber -- the same Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota who in his 1972 presidential campaign fought so hard to scuttle it.

Get a load of who voted recently to re-enlist draft registration -- the same Sen. Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana who in 1971 voted (unsuccessfully) to muster the military draft out of American life.

And guess who recently wielded the leading knife in cutting American funds for World Bank development loans? -- the same Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho who has long championed US foreign aid.

These and a big-name roster of other liberal Democratic senators are running hard for re-election at a time when voters are perceptibly veering right.

They are up against not only strong home-state conservative Republican challengers, but also well-organized and well-financed national right-wing campaigns.

One such drive, by the National Conservative Political Action Committee, plans to pour $700,000 through a loophole in the federal campaign finance laws -- allowing unlimited sums to be spent on "independent" efforts unconnected with any particular candidate -- against six veteran Senate liberal Democrats regarded as "radicals."

"We're in a defensive position," concedes a Washington fund-raiser working for several of the targeted liberals.

Backed against the political wall, many of the Senate's leading progressives are suddenly beginning to talk -- and vote -- more conservatively.

The impact on the voters will not be gauged until Nov. 4, but the rightward drift already is sowing consternation among some of the senators' friends (those unwilling to make allowances for political situations), and puzzling their opponents.

An exasperated GOP challenger of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, now tempering his long-running criticism of heavy defense spending, accuses him of being a "born again" defense advocate after 18 years of voting the other way.

The senators themselves tend to bristle at suggestions that they may be tailoring their stances to election-year politics.

Senator McGovern takes issue with the common practice of subjecting a politician to "ridicule if he appears to modify his positions on a public issue, especially in an election year." He says politicians should be expected to "change as conditions change."

Whether it is statesmanlike adjustment to changing conditions or political flip-flopping, there is a lot of it going around in this campaign. For instance:

* Senator Church, in addition to his eyebrow-raising sponsorship of the amendment cutting foreign aid, disclosed last year the presence of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba and demanded its withdrawal, and voted against Senate confirmation of two liberal appeals court nominees.

He also co-sponsored (along with fellow liberals Alan Cranston of California and Mr. Nelson) a bill exempting small businesses from federal safety and health inspections, and (with liberal colleagues Bayh, Cranston, and McGovern) another bill exempting independent oil producers from the windfall profits tax.

* Senator Cranston abandoned his more-familiar role as a leading foe of higher defense spending to declare earlier this year that "I strongly support an increased defense budget in this time of international crisis."

* Senator McGovern, besides calling for building a "modified" B-1 bomber (while still opposing the original B- 1), urges more federal funds for South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base, and asks that Congress be given power to veto regulations of the Federal Trade Commission.

* Senator Bayh has proposed legislation limiting federal spending to 20 percent of the gross national product.

* Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D) of Washington, who came to Congress in 1937 as an enthusiastic New Dealer and now chairs the Senate committee that appropriates the increasingly unpopular billions of dollars required to run the government, also now favors a statutory ceiling on federal spending. He even joshingly refers to himself as a "closet conservative."

* Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, who managed Senator McGovern's dovish campaign for president in 1972, recently has begun to sound surprisingly hawkish. Earlier this year he urged President Carter to consider using military force against Iran.

Not all of the Senate's campaigning Democratic liberals are trimming their political sails in the conservative winds.

The most prominent exception (and perhaps the only one) is John C. Culver of Iowa, who is trying to make a campaign virtue out of his flintly commitment to his philosophical principles. He grouses about politicians who "do any stupid thing just to hold on to [their] seat."

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