SDI debate spills over into elections. Republicans rush to defend it, Democrats hate to gainsay it

President Reagan's plan for a space-based missile defense shield has added some last-minute fireworks to the final days of Election '86. The debate over the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has grown louder since the Iceland summit. It even shows signs of spilling into the 1988 presidential race.

Nowhere has the issue been more vigorously pursued than here in Colorado, which could eventually become the center of America's space defense effort.

SDI has emerged here as one of the critical points of debate in the race between US Rep. Ken Kramer (R) and US Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Gary Hart (D).

Economic issues are paramount in Colorado this year. But Mr. Kramer, a longtime SDI booster, has linked SDI with the economic issue by promising that the defense program could bring Colorado at least 8,000 new jobs. Millions of dollars in related contracts could eventually add to that total.

Those are exciting prospects in Colorado, especially now. The state's unemployment rate has risen above the national average for the first time in 15 years. Voters are worried.

After the Iceland summit, Republican Kramer immediately challenged Democrat Wirth to promise that he wouldn't ``trade away SDI,'' along with all those Colorado jobs.

Mr. Wirth refused to take the bait. But Coloradans are being reminded that Wirth once referred to SDI as the ``cockamamie star wars scheme.''

Wirth has fought back by ridiculing Kramer's statement that he would support SDI even if the eventual cost reached $1 trillion. Wirth says that sort of profligacy hardly jibes with Kramer's support for a balanced-budget amendment.

Even so, some Republican analysts believe SDI could prove to be a political winner. It could have a small but decisive effect here in Colorado, where Kramer and Wirth are neck and neck, and even a few votes could make the difference.

Most Americans (about 70 percent, according to various polls) think SDI is a good idea. Yet Democrats have trouble supporting SDI without any qualifications because of the large numbers of liberal activists who form the backbone of the party.

A ringing endorsement of SDI by Wirth, for example, would probably disillusion thousands of his supporters. So he limits himself to statements in favor of SDI research.

Kramer, who comes out of the conservative wing of the Colorado Republican Party, says there are two great attractions to SDI.

First, it offers the hope of making the US ``safe from nuclear weapons.'' Although no SDI plan may be capable of stopping every nuclear missile, SDI could so complicate the job of an attacker that US security would increase immeasurably, Kramer says.

Second, there are the thousands of jobs that SDI would create.

Kramer unabashedly sees SDI as a Colorado jobs bill -- a position that others, such as Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, lambaste as a ``pork barrel'' version of defense policy.

Already, Colorado has the National Test Center, a laser facility that will employ more than 2,500 people in the Colorado Springs area. And that promises to be only the beginning. The long-term goal, says Kramer, is to make this state the ``space capital of America.''

Although SDI remains a nebulous concept to many voters, Republicans observe that the public rallied around the President on the SDI issue after Iceland.

An ABC News poll found that by a margin of 64 to 22, Americans approved of Reagan's performance at the summit, including his refusal to bargain away SDI. An internal Republican poll found that public support for SDI itself rose 12 points, to 74 percent, after the summit.

The difficulty of this issue for Democrats was illustrated during the past two weeks.

First, Senator Hart, the leading Democratic presidential contender for 1988, attacked the President from the left for rejecting a proposal for deep reductions in offensive nuclear weapons -- just to save his ``star wars'' project.

Yet only hours later, Senator Nunn, also mentioned as an '88 prospect, attacked Mr. Reagan from the right for the President's promise to share SDI technology with the Soviets.

Senator Nunn, who called SDI a ``valuable program,'' said he was ``astounded'' by the President's promise, which he criticized as ``off the wall.'' SDI technology will have other profound economic and military benefits, which can hardly be handed free of charge to the Soviet Union, Nunn says.

This dichotomy within the party reflects the schisms of recent years over defense, economics, foreign policy, and other fundamentals.

Senator Hart's quick denunciation of Reagan, made before polls showed strong public support for the President in Iceland, also points up the political difficulties of dealing with SDI.

Inside the Washington Beltway, SDI has been widely disparaged. But doubts don't run so deep elsewhere. An aide to Wirth in Colorado observes:

``Reagan really believes in SDI. How are we supposed to fight that?''

The SDI issue has been handled gingerly by most Democratic candidates because of their respect for Reagan's political clout. But many Democrats feel frustrated.

One Democratic strategist with a consulting firm in Washington says he's been outvoted by his colleagues, but he contends:

``I think we should take on the Republicans on this thing. It won't be easy. But the public will listen. In Iceland, Reagan could have struck a deal to reduce nuclear weapons by half. The public would rather have that than a system that may not even work.''

That's much the attitude of Hart, who retires in January to begin his presidential campaign. Hart continues to be the strongest Democratic candidate, with a 55-to-30 lead over his nearest rival, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in the most recent Gallup poll.

Hart calls the President ``inflexible'' in Iceland: ``Star wars is now the central obstacle to what might have been the most promising arms control agreement ever proposed.''

``Three years ago . . . many of us argued that SDI would be a barrier -- not a bargaining chip -- to major arms reductions. Unfortunately, that appears to have happened.,'' Hart adds.

He concludes: ``Neither side can afford to let SDI determine the future of Soviet-US relations.''

But the SDI program continues to grow, and Republicans hope their political futures will go into orbit along with the defense shield.

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