Ronald Reagan's rapprochement with the Soviet Union has reshaped the defense debate in the 1988 presidential campaign. Ironically, Mr. Reagan's success with Moscow could make things harder for Vice-President George Bush in his race against Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Gone is the talk of an ``evil empire.'' Gone is the emphasis on the cold war that rallied many voters to the GOP.
Public fear of the Soviets is declining, new surveys show. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most popular world leaders among American voters.
At the same time, Americans are attaching more importance to a powerful new set of national security issues, including the war in Nicaragua, conflicts in the Mideast, and the threat from international drug trafficking.
On those issues, President Reagan and the Republicans receive low marks.
John Marttila of the survey firm Marttila & Kiley in Boston says Mr. Reagan's ratings on traditional defense issues such as the Soviet threat are so high they are ``truly extraordinary.''
Three of every four Americans give Reagan top marks on arms control, keeping America out of war, and standing up to the Soviets, Mr. Marttila reports.
Yet Reagan's overall rating on foreign and defense policy is slightly negative - a puzzling anomaly.
A survey conducted by Marttila as part of the Americans Talk Security (ATS) project may have uncovered the reason. It found that while Reagan ranks high on traditional defense concerns, his ratings are lower on a number of emerging issues, such as drugs, that are commanding today's headlines.
Because of these new issues, and the perceived decline of the Soviet military threat, traditional defense concerns could be of less importance this year than in any election since 1948, the survey concludes. It states:
``The President's continuing progress with Mr. Gorbachev has contributed to the diminishment of one of the most politically important Republican issues of the past generation.''
In light of the survey, Mr. Dukakis's strong emphasis on fighting drugs, stopping the war in Nicaragua, and being tough on Panamanian strong man Manuel Antonio Noriega is good politics. Those are the very foreign policy areas where Mr. Bush appears weakest.
This is the sixth of 12 ATS surveys to be conducted this year. The privately funded project is under the supervision of a cooperating group of polling firms: Marttila & Kiley, which does polling for Dukakis; Market Opinion Research, which works for Mr. Bush; and the nonpartisan Daniel Yankelovich Group.
Fred Steeper of Market Opinion Research says Republicans are generically as strong as the Democrats on non-Soviet defense issues like drugs and terrorism. So Bush has the opportunity to make those his issues.
Mr. Steeper also says there is some political mileage left in the Soviet threat, despite the current euphoria. ``We're very far from being friends with the Soviets,'' he says. ``There's still lots to be done.''
In a speech yesterday Bush, while welcoming Gorbachev's reforms, said, ``We've got to remember the cold war is not over.''
But Larry Keagan, a senior researcher with the Yankelovich firm, says the warming of the cold war removes one of the major Republican political advantages in recent years.
Other highlights of the 143-page survey released yesterday:
Most Americans (84 percent) say it is ``time to reduce our financial commitments to countries in the world and spend more on problems at home.'' Only 13 percent disagree.
Despite concern about spending levels, 66 percent say the Reagan military buildup was necessary.
A slim majority (51 percent) favor the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars''). Thirty-nine percent oppose it.
Only 23 percent of Americans believe the US is still the No. 1 economic power in the world. Some 44 percent say the US is equal to Japan and West Germany. And 29 percent say the US has fallen to No. 2.
Most Americans (52 percent) believe defense spending should be cut, 37 percent believe it should be the same, and 8 percent favor spending more.