Iran-contra crisis may have peaked. Reagan's ratings seen likely to rise if no link to funds diversion found

Political fallout from the Iran-contra imbroglio continues to rain on President Reagan and the Republicans, but some analysts say the White House may now have seen the worst. As the crisis passes the two-month mark, this is the damage report as seen from here:

President Reagan took a 16-point spill in his public-approval ratings during the first weeks of the crisis. That is one of the greatest drops ever recorded by a President, a Gallup Organization official says.

The crisis slipped off Page 1 during the holidays, and experts say the next polls should show some improvement in the President's standing. Alex Gage of Market Opinion Research says Christmas usually gives every president a 6- to 10-point boost.

White House influence usually begins to wane in the seventh year of a presidency. The crisis has probably speeded that process, and this could damage the President's programs in Congress.

Vice-President George Bush could be the biggest political loser of the crisis. Mr. Bush's chances in the 1988 presidential race depend heavily on the reflected glory of the Reagan White House, and that has faded.

Senate Republican leader Robert Dole could be the biggest winner. He would be the first to fill the void if Mr. Bush loses strength.

Democrats should benefit, especially if the work of the investigating committees drags out for months. The crisis makes the Democrats look better, by comparison, in the area of competence.

Ironically, some Democratic planners fret that the crisis could actually hurt their party in 1988. Harrison Hickman, a Democratic consultant, puts it this way when discussing 1988:

``The good news is that the Democrats don't have Reagan to contend with anymore. The bad news [about this crisis] is that Reagan is taking Bush with him. I've always thought our best chance was to have Bush as the [Republican] nominee.''

Mr. Hickman calls Senator Dole a greater threat to the Democrats.

``Dole is a guy of substance and performance, and people are beginning to like him a little more personally.''

Political analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says it is still too early to get a solid reading on the political damage to the White House. But Mr. Hess says he doubts the President's popularity will sink any lower.

He notes two things. First, ``the President did something [sold arms to terrorists] that he told us he wasn't going to do.'' Second, ``Reagan didn't know something [the contra funds transfer] that he should have known.''

Hess suggests: ``The President's image having absorbed those shocks, I think we have seen the trough.''

Analyst Hess adds one note of caution, however: ``I'm assuming that what we will ultimately find out about this crisis is not frightful.''

Mr. Gage of Market Opinion Research, a polling firm that helps Republican candidates, says some of the political damage to Reagan has been exaggerated.

Much of the current political speculation is ``insider stuff,'' Gage says. ``There are about 500 to 600 people worrying about this every day, and that's about the extent of it.''

Gage says poll results must be properly analyzed. For example, in last month's Gallup poll, Reagan's approval rating fell from 63 percent to 47 percent. But Reagan's personal popularity fell only from 80 percent to 75 percent.'' The first figure represents public reaction to the headlines, Gage says. The second reflects the public's actual feelings toward the President.

Even so, a Gallup official notes that the approval-rating drop was ``the biggest ever recorded for Reagan, and I think the biggest for any President in a two-month period.''

Even President Richard Nixon's approval rating fell at a slower rate during Watergate.

Hess, who recently wrote ``The Ultimate Insiders,'' a book on the US Senate and the news media, also cautions that Reagan's problems must be kept in perspective.

The President's current approval rating, about 50 percent, ``puts him in the normal range of incumbents. What he had before was a phenomenal rating, like Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now he's simply back to the realm of the ordinary.''

If Reagan holds close to 50 percent, he will have weathered the storm much better than some of his predecessors.

President Jimmy Carter, during the Iran crisis, fell to 21 percent. Mr. Nixon, during Watergate, sank to 24 percent. President Lyndon B. Johnson slipped to 35 percent during the Vietnam war. And, in the midst of the Korean war, President Harry S. Truman hit a low of 23 percent.

Reagan's challenge: Stop the erosion now, before it gets out of control.

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