JOHN TOWER'S struggle to become secretary of defense has turned into an unusual Washington power game centering not on his intelligence or training, but on his character. Seldom is the mask of politeness stripped away to show how much human faults, strengths, and interaction weigh in political decisions. At issue is perhaps more than the simple question of whether former Senator Tower's judgment at the Pentagon would be clouded by drink. Even his opponents admit that has not been proved by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe into Tower's personal life. ``There is no smoking gun in the FBI reports,'' says Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Rather, the sheer volume of allegations about Tower's drinking habits has daunted his former Senate colleagues. In addition, congressional sources suggest that several more-complex reasons may lie behind the rejection of Tower's nomination by the Senate Armed Services Committee. These include:
Allegations pointing to arrogance. Several sources say that top Democrats have been especially annoyed by reports that Tower has engaged in questionable behavior in recent weeks, after his confirmation hearings began. If true, Democrats say, such actions would represent arrogance on the part of a nominee who at the same time was telling the Armed Services panel publicly that he was a ``man of some discipline.''
The Senate Armed Services Committee has investigated, though not proved, at least one credible allegation that Tower had large quantities of alcohol at a downtown restaurant sometime during early February. The person making this allegation talked to committee aides directly, without going to the FBI first.
In addition, a Washington Post gossip column reported flatly that Tower was seen recently lurching at a female luncheon campanion while making suggestive remarks. It was not clear whether the action was serious or if it was intended to be self-satire.
Republicans say that ``Tower sightings'' such as this are becoming as numerous and as elusive to nail down as sightings of the Loch Ness monster, and that investigation of Tower's personal life has passed all reasonable bounds.
Settling of old political scores. Since Tower himself was a senator from 1961 to 1985 and chairman of the very Armed Services panel that judged him unfavorably, senior senators such as Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia have spent long days working with him on the nation's business. They have personal experience, as well as an FBI report, to help judge what kind of man he is.
Thus, some could be using allegations of misbehavior as an excuse to vote against Tower, rather than a reason. Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas charged as much last week. He said that some senators were engaging in hypocrisy by ``hiding'' behind the FBI report, when in fact their negative votes stemmed from some personal or political vendetta.
When Tower ran the Armed Services Committee, he was not known as a gentle bipartisan conciliator. Many Democrats privately admit that they think Tower is now getting some of his own back, and they are not too sorry about it. Partisan tensions over the nomination are growing.
``The thin veneer of `will the gentleman yield' politeness has been stripped away,'' one congressional source says.
Now that the Armed Services panel has judged the Tower nomination unfavorably, the battle moves to the Senate floor. A chamber vote on Tower is expected in the middle of this week.
President Bush, meanwhile, told reporters in Tokyo Saturday that he will meet individually with 10 or more Democratic senators to push for Tower's confirmation after he returns today from a four-day Asian trip.
``I'll do it personally and I'll do it as forcefully as I can,'' the President said. Bush plans to meet with the Senate Democrats at the White House early on Tuesday. Tower himself was expected to appear on several TV news interview programs.
No one on either side is predicting sure victory. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine said at a press breakfast Friday that he had not yet heard a Senate Democrat say that he or she would vote for Tower. At the same time, Senator Mitchell said, a number of Republicans are expressing uneasiness over the nomination.
The Tower nomination will be approved or rejected by a simple majority of senators present and voting. There are 55 Senate Democrats, and 45 Republicans.
Inevitably administration officials are beginning to be badgered by questions about withdrawing Tower's nomination. Backing down now in the face of adversity could well be interpreted by Congress as a sign of weakness on the part of the Bush administration. But the White House can also count, and already some unnamed officials are hinting that the manly thing might be for Tower to take himself out of the running.
One man mentioned as a possible replacement nominee is Norman Augustine, now chief executive officer of Martin Marietta Corporation. Mr. Augustine was interviewed by Bush transition officials before the inauguration for a possible administration job. Augustine's ties to the defense industry would be an obvious political obstacle, but he is widely respected in Washington as honest and knowledgeable about national security affairs.
Meanwhile, back at the Pentagon, important decisions are backing up. A report on the MX and Midgetman strategic missiles, due to Congress earlier this month, is now late. Decisions need to be made on where to cut the proposed 1990 defense budget to reduce it to the zero- growth level promised by Bush. The President has also called for a Pentagon program of procurement reform, and a 90-day comprehensive review of US security strategy - efforts that need a defense secretary to lead them.