SAM NUNN of Georgia has always been the kind of Democrat even a Republican could love. But perhaps no more. Not after John Tower. Barry Goldwater, the father of modern-day Republicanism, once called Senator Nunn ``about the best man we have in this country right now.''
Mr. Goldwater's accolades were understandable. The Georgia senator supports a muscular military. He backs conservative causes. He even wrote a bill that would require college students to work in public service to earn their federal grants.
Then came Mr. Tower. When Nunn led the attack on the Texan, who was President Bush's first choice for defense secretary, it was like a slap in the face to many Republicans. All at once, Nunn sounded very partisan.
``Republicans aren't thinking of Nunn as `our favorite Democrat' any more,'' says political analyst Stephen Hess.
There was an upside for Nunn in the Tower tempest, however. Though he lost friends among Republicans, Nunn's political future may have brightened.
Suddenly, the public knew who Nunn was. And they liked what they saw. At the same time, Democratic partisans saw Nunn knew how to fight - and win.
Nunn's political future fascinates Washington insiders because it is widely believed that some day the soft-spoken Georgian may occupy the Oval Office.
The senator is known for a low-keyed, bipartisan style. His expertise - national defense - is just what Democrats need. His political base in the South makes him strong in a region Democrats need to regain the White House.
Yet there are doubts that Nunn could ever win the White House because he could never get the Democratic nomination.
It is still Democratic activists (read ``liberals'') who hold sway over the party when it picks a presidential nominee. And Nunn, with his conservative Southern roots, has never excited activists. They prefer true-blue liberals, usually from the North, like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, or Walter Mondale.
Political scientist Thomas Mann says Nunn probably wishes the Tower fight had never happened. It has made Nunn's job as head of the Armed Services Committee tougher, and his nonpartisan mode of operation more difficult than in the past, he suggests.
But Dr. Mann, former executive director of the American Political Science Association, adds:
``If his goal was to become more of a national political figure, and eventually seek the presidency, then one might argue that this whole experience might have been good for him. It certainly made people look up to him. Afterwards, he seemed a more formidable national figure.''
Public opinion polls reflect that. A survey by KRC Communications Research, March 12-14, found that Nunn was recognized by 71 percent of those questioned. In contrast, only 29 percent of Americans recognized Michael Dukakis eight months before he won the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
In addition, Americans now have a positive impression of the senator by better than a 3-to-1 margin, KRC found.
Mr. Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, says Nunn fortuitously moved into the national spotlight on an issue that he won. ``Furthermore, most people are pleased that he won it. He won while being on the right side.''
Claibourne Darden Jr., a veteran Atlanta pollster, agrees with Hess's assessment. While Nunn lost some of his bipartisan aura, he says, he did nothing that hurts him at home, and probably nothing that will hurt him nationally.
``Unfortunately, it became very partisan, while in fact it shouldn't have been partisan at all,'' Mr. Darden says. ``As Michael Dukakis said [in the 1988 campaign], it was a matter of competence. You cannot fool around with secretary of defense or secretary of state. Tower should have been nominated for secretary of agriculture, and he would have gone flying in.''
Most Georgia voters were not greatly excited by the Tower fight, Darden says. ``By the time they're picking cotton down here this summer, everyone will have forgotten it.''
Darden says the Tower affair was only a political blip compared to the tremendous uproar over the Panama Canal Treaty several years ago, when Nunn voted to give the canal away. (At the time, Nunn was being loyal to a fellow Georgian, President Carter.)
``The Panama thing hurt Nunn, but Sam lived through it fine and later got 70 or 80 percent of the vote,'' Darden says.
Nationally, the partisan tenor of the Tower fight strengthened Nunn among Democrats but hurt among Bush supporters, Darden says. If Nunn hopes for the presidential nomination in 1992, that won't be a bad thing. MEANWHILE, Nunn is branching out beyond the defense area. His most ambitious project is S.3, the Nunn-McCurdy bill (also named for Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma). S.3 calls for ``national service,'' either in civilian or military duty, before a student would qualify for college aid.
The bill targets both high school graduates and senior citizens. It would require service in education, human services, conservation, public safety, or the military. In exchange, the government would pay $10,000 per year (for civilian service) or $12,000 a year (for military service) to be used for education or a down payment on a home.
The plan brought a blistering response from some liberals as discriminatory against the poor.
``It holds the educational aspirations of the poor hostage to public service, while excusing the affluent,'' said Rep. William Ford (D) of Michigan. Other Democrats, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. Augustus Hawkins of California, also are leery. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island called the plan ``cruel.''
Nunn, in his quiet fashion, hints that a compromise may be possible.
Meanwhile, with the Tower issue behind him, he has gone back to his favorite topic, the esoterica of defense policy.
As Mann says, Nunn prefers being a consensus builder. Once the Tower fight was over, ``he immediately took steps to recover the old image as quickly as possible.''