WHAT role does foreign policy play in presidential campaigns? A colorful (and reasonably accurate) answer came from the Republican governor of Illinois in 1960, William Stratton, as he sized up Richard Nixon's selection of a running mate: ``You can say all you want about foreign affairs, but what is really important is the price of hogs in Chicago and St. Louis.'' That kernel of conventional campaign wisdom goes a long way toward answering the question. It is well known that attitudes about the economy and the candidates' personal qualities generally carry greater weight with voters than do foreign and defense policy.
But a few other rules of thumb also apply to foreign policy in presidential campaigns. First, while foreign policy rarely decides the outcome, at times it can dominate the campaign. Dwight Eisenhower's pledge to ``go to Korea'' captured the public's attention in the 1952 race. In 1968 and 1972, the Vietnam war cast a shadow across the political landscape. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan made a central campaign theme of halting the perceived erosion of US military and diplomatic power under Jimmy Carter.
Second, voters look for an overall sense of competence and direction from candidates; the details of foreign policy positions tend to be overlooked. The man who would represent America to the world must seem sufficiently ``presidential.'' If voters conclude that a candidate's grasp of foreign affairs is dangerously weak, they are not likely to make him their commander in chief.
Third, to the degree that foreign policy has influenced who wins, it has largely benefited Republican candidates in the cold war era. Public opinion polling since 1952 suggests that only once, in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson succeeded in portraying his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, as an impulsive and dangerous man, did foreign policy help a Democrat. Even then it contributed little to Mr. Johnson's landslide victory.
This year, the conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy remains a Republican issue. Superpower relations are better now than they have been for 40 years. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan strolled amiably together through Red Square. Washington and Moscow are scrapping two classes of nuclear missiles, and a more sweeping cut in strategic nuclear arms is in the works. Soviet troops are leaving Afghanistan, and a combination of Soviet flexibility and American pressure is encouraging a remarkable outbreak of peace in regional conflicts. The Soviet Union is turning inward to reform its ailing economy and liberalize its society.
George Bush hails the new superpower relationship as vindication of Reagan's philosophy of ``peace through strength.'' He pledges to carry on with Reagan's military buildup and support for anti-communist guerrilla forces around the globe. What's more, Mr. Bush wins hands down in a comparison of his foreign policy expertise with that of Michael Dukakis. Bush has served as director of central intelligence, envoy to the United Nations and China, and now vice-president. Mr. Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, has never held national office.
So a foreign policy contest centering on America's relationship with the USSR (the traditional post-World War II war-and-peace issue) would be fought, once again, on Republican terrain. Opinion polls in which the public rates Bush as more likely to keep the peace than Dukakis seem to bear this out.
But the broader picture on foreign policy for Dukakis is not nearly so bleak as it might at first seem. Far-reaching changes in the global economy and the growing salience of such diverse issues as terrorism, defense burden-sharing, nuclear proliferation, the environment, and drugs offer him a chance to shift the foreign policy debate toward issues on which Democrats either hold an edge or can hold their own.
Paradoxically, even if voters give Reagan (and Bush) some of the credit for curbing the aggressiveness of the USSR and its allies, the sense that peace in 1988 is stable may not hurt Dukakis much. Peace encourages voters to concentrate on domestic topics, where Democrats generally do better with the voters. And the state of peace will lessen the importance of Dukakis's relative lack of foreign policy experience.
OF greater significance, both for Dukakis and for the way foreign policy affects presidential campaigns: Americans are beginning to redefine their conception of national security. A bipartisan polling project, ``Americans Talk Security,'' has shown important trends about how the Gorbachev phenomenon and foreign economic competition are shaping public attitudes. A March ATS survey found that a surprising 59 percent of Americans believe ``economic competitors [such as Japan] pose a greater threat to national security than military adversaries do, because they threaten our jobs and economic security.'' The same survey found that 48 percent of the public thinks the US should attend more to threats like economic competition and terrorism than that from the USSR. And 55 percent favored cuts in defense spending if they had to choose an area for cuts; only about one-fifth supported cuts in ``social and domestic programs such as health care, social security, and the like'' and in ``economic programs to create jobs and economic growth.''
Meanwhile, other ``intermestic'' issues - international issues with strong domestic consequences - are gaining national visibility. The drug epidemic at home and narcotics trafficking abroad, especially in Latin America, dominate the news. Massive foreign purchases of US government debt and private American assets have set off alarm over the country's loss of economic autonomy. The hot summer of the ``greenhouse effect'' has returned the environment as a major political issue. And both candidates tout education and job training to improve the nation's economic performance.
Bush is particularly vulnerable on three of these issues - terrorism, drugs, and trade - for which he had specific responsibilities in guiding administration policy. This vulnerability follows from the Iran-contra affair, the faltering ``war on drugs'' (which also spared the drug-running dictator of Panama), and the nation's gaping trade deficit.
Dukakis, far more than Bush, has tailored his message to the public's changing view of national security. Echoing a point popularized by Paul Kennedy's best-selling book ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' Dukakis stresses that economic strength underpins military might. ``How can we build a strong America militarily that's teeter-tottering on a mountain of debt,'' he asked during last week's debate. He also ties competitiveness directly to military expenditures: ``We can't spend billions on `star wars' ... while Japan runs rings around us in the development of new civilian technologies.''
In Dukakis's world, the peaceful competition with Japan rivals in importance the military competition with the USSR. And drugs pose a greater threat to the Western Hemisphere than do Nicaragua's Sandinistas.
``I'm running for president because I want to restore America's economic leadership in the world. And the challenge to that leadership comes not from the USSR, but from Europe and the Pacific Rim,'' he said in April.
Yet, to capitalize on the ``intermestic'' issues, Dukakis must dispel doubts that he is ``weak'' on defense and ``naive'' about the Soviets, as Bush has said repeatedly. US-Soviet relations are, as ATS pollster John Marttila has said, ``the gateway through which all aspiring national American politicians must pass.''
DUKAKIS's emphasis on ``testing'' Gorbachev to cooperate on winding down the arms race and confrontation in the Middle East suggests that he appreciates the opportunities of the Gorbachev era better than Bush does. His emphasis on negotiation also suits the electorate's attitude toward the USSR: In a sweeping turnaround from the early 1980s, the public now favors a strategy of negotiations over ``getting tough'' with the Soviets by a 3-to-1 margin, an ATS survey found. But the governor must couple his activist approach to superpower relations with assurances that he maintains a healthy skepticism about Soviet intentions. He must repel the Bush charge that he falls outside the bipartisan consensus on dealing with Moscow from a position of firmness and strong defenses.
Those needs prompted Dukakis's barrage of toughly worded foreign policy speeches last month. He used them to underscore his commitment to nuclear deterrence and to ``reaffirm our willingness to respond to force with force in defense of our vital interests around the world.'' Still, he needs to explain when military force is appropriate, beyond his politically easy call for preemptive strikes against terrorist bases. He should also acknowledge that the administration deserves some credit for the moderation of Soviet behavior. That will solidify his position as a foreign policy centrist and thereby free him to run on other issues.
Dukakis's bid to broaden the national security debate has also suffered from a lack of specifics. Some of the gaps were filled in by his proposals to combat drug trafficking by using foreign aid and hiring more federal agents, and his plan to assist college students through a self-supporting federal loan program. But voters need to feel that Dukakis has a cohesive program in mind, coordinating international with domestic policies, when he talks of ``economic patriotism.''
If Dukakis can frame the national security debate in terms that tap into public anxiety about the future; if, in short, he can keep attention fixed on Japan and Latin America rather than on the USSR, then he will be able to blunt much of the Republican advantage in foreign policy.