Americans are no longer as worried about the Soviet military threat as they once were. The ``new d'etente'' with Moscow has conspicuously lowered public concern. But as Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and his running mate Lloyd Bentsen campaign for the White House, they will seek to capitalize on a new nuance in the American mood. Polls point to a growing view that American security is as much a question of economics as military strength and that the danger to the United States of losing out economically to Japan and other countries is greater ultimately than the Soviet threat.
Hence, Governor Dukakis's unrelenting stress on jobs and Senator Bentsen's experience in the field of trade and finance could be important factors in the election, say political observers.
``Foreign policy is being redefined in a way that brings it into the domestic arena as much as I can remember,'' says Kevin Phillips, a conservative Republican and publisher of the American Political Report. ``So there's an overlapping of the new foreign policy with basic domestic issues.''
Political analysts agree that foreign policy is not pivotal in an election unless there is a war or threat of war, or unless the candidates take extreme, polarizing positions on issues. Neither is the case in 1988. But voters are voicing concern about trade, fairness, and a perceived economic threat from abroad.
Asked in a recent Gallup poll about their potential concerns for the future, 27 percent of the respondents said they were ``very concerned'' about a military conflict. But the figures rose to 40 percent when people were queried about concern over the growth of foreign investment in the US, 50 percent on loss of jobs, and 40 percent on the decline in the quality of American products.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization, calls this a ``new twist'' on the foreign policy front. Whereas the Soviet military threat once loomed as the major foreign policy issue, he notes, there has been a ``momentous change'' in attitudes toward the Soviet Union.
``The success of the Reagan administration in terms of disarmament and the new d'etente with the Russians has taken away one of the Republican chips in recent years,'' Mr. Kohut says. Opinions about foreign policy usually divide the Democrats, he adds, but they're not being divided this year, because ``it's not a salient issue.''
Some 45 percent of Americans today have a ``positive attitude'' toward the Soviet government, Kohut says. Eleven years ago only 11 percent did.
``If that opinion sticks and Americans continue to have a more favorable attitude, that will affect a whole range of issues - defense spending, US troops in Europe, and so on.''
While foreign policy may not be a central issue in the campaign, there is no doubt the Dukakis-Bentsen team will come under attack for its lack of diplomatic experience. Republican challenger George Bush is expected to continue highlighting his immense experience in foreign policy posts, including US ambassador to the United Nations and China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
But political observers suggest that it will be the character, personality, and comportment of the two presidential contenders more than the specific issue of experience that will determine public judgment in this area. Harry Truman did not have foreign policy experience. Nor did Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan also lacked credentials and waged the 1980 campaign combating the image of a ``trigger-happy cowboy.''
``Experience in the final analysis will not be critical,'' says Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. ``It will be the substance of what is conveyed, such as strength with respect to representing the country and a sense of self-assurance.''
Except in dramatic instances where the country is engaged in a war - as in Vietnam in 1972 - foreign policy in presidential elections is more a matter of ``national feelings,'' of how a candidate will manage the national interest and articulate that interest, says Dr. Ladd. In 1984, he points out, Reagan was criticized on specific foreign policy failures, including Central America and Beirut, but he conveyed the image of a ``strong articulator of the national position that transcended specific actions.''
Dukakis should not be too vulnerable on foreign policy, says Fred Greenstein, Princeton biographer of Dwight Eisenhower, because voters respond most to the question of war and peace and the governor's blandness does not come across as ``flaky.''
For all of George Bush's experience, he too carries liabilities, including his association with an often-marred Reagan foreign policy and his difficulty in shedding an image of ``wimpiness''
The Iran-contra scandal above all is expected to emerge as a campaign issue, say Democratic and Republican analysts.
``Iran-contra remains the pivotal event in the Reagan administration that will determine whether Bush gets elected,'' says Kohut. ``People do want to forget Iran-contra, but it undermined a fragile confidence in government and the administration. ... Reagan has not recovered and Bush continues to deal with the legacy of Iran-Contra, Noriega, etc. It's all indicative of one thing to people - things aren't right in Washington.''
Although Bush has repeatedly responded to questions about Iran-contra, GOP operatives think he has not put the issue behind him. ``He has to respond better,'' says Edward Rollins, director of the 1984 Reagan campaign. ``He has to say why he would not allow that to happen in the future. He does not have that answer yet.''
In the opinion of diplomatic experts, the key to good presidential leadership in foreign policy is having good advisers. ``Don't expect a president to have diplomatic knowledge because there will always be large gaps,'' says a senior State Department official. ``But he must pick good advisers and know how to work with them. ... The problem with this administration is that they did not always know the dimension of a problem. ... Dukakis and his people are smart enough to look for people who can advise them.''
Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who served Democratic presidents, notes that a president deals with only a small number of key foreign policy problems while the professionals carry the burden of day-to-day management. Needed in the job, he says, is practical judgment and common sense.
``Foreign policy is a big business - some 3,000 cables go out from the State Department every day,'' he says. ``The President might see two or three and the secretary of state seven or eight. So the president has to know how to delegate responsibility without abdicating responsibility.''
Dukakis, Mr. Rusk says, has had the experience of delegating authority while retaining it in his own hands. But, he says, the governor's pronouncements on foreign policy thus far are ``a mixed picture.''
On balance, however, foreign policy is not expected to loom high on the campaign agenda or to be crucial to voters' decision in November.
``Foreign policy is not of major importance unless someone is out right or left,'' says election expert Richard Scammon. ``The two candidates play between the 40-yard lines ... so there will not be a major confrontation on foreign policy. It's a sideline unless someone takes a way-out position.''