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Reagan puts his prestige on the line

There is a hush here in Washington as the President seeks to persuade a reluctant Congress to let him sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. The President may well win. He has a lot of political clout - and he is using it. And if he does win, it will help him maintain the momentum that can aid him in getting his new budget proposal through Congress.

But veteran presidential watchers here are saying that the President is taking a big risk in his all-out support of the AWACS sale; that he may have overwarned about the serious consequences that would flow from a Senate defeat on the heels of the House rebuff that came earlier.

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Mr. Reagan and those around him have not only said how important this sale is to United States-Saudi relations. But they have also underscored how the defeat would impair the President's standing in the eyes of other national leaders and, thus, Mr. Reagan's ability to conduct foreign affairs.

So observers here are saying that:

1.The President could, indeed, squeak through with a Senate win that would add something to his prestige both here and abroad.

2. The President, as popular as he is, could withstand an AWACS defeat without it being, of itself, too damaging.

3. But by his overblown warnings of how seriously such a loss would impair his presidency, Mr. Reagan may have set himself up for at least an initial reading by the news media and by many national leaders that he has, indeed, suffered a major setback.

Actually, as observers here see it, it is what he makes of the loss, should it come about, that will determine the extent of the damage. That is, he probably won't be hurt much (after the initial reaction) if he is able to keep the Saudis from doing something that would damage the US.

One longtime observer of the Washington scene puts the President's political problem this way: ''He has made so much of having to win the AWACS - he is bound to be damaged, at least somewhat. It would be like Carter after he had gone all out to win on the Panama Canal: A loss then would have been very damaging.''

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Another such observer, Bryce Harlow, an adviser to Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George Bush, says he thinks the damage from an AWACS loss would be small. ''Sure, it would hurt him,'' he said, ''but it would be no disaster.''

Of Reagan's warning that he would be injured in his handling of foreign affairs, Mr. Harlow said: ''World leaders will stay with Reagan if the American people will stay with him. And my judgment is that the people will stay with Reagan no matter how he does in his effort to get AWACS approved.''

''I think Reagan is a lot like Eisenhower,'' he continued. ''In the case of Eisenhower, he could win, lose, or draw on individual issues, and he still remained extremely popular with the people.''

In sum, the analysis from Washington observers of the AWACS vote impact is this:

If Reagan wins, he maintains momentum that will help his legislative initiatives. Also, to a degree, he will have won a battle with Congress over who makes US foreign policy. If he loses, he will lessen his clout on Capitol Hill and, to some extent, decrease the prospects for his proposals.

But win or lose, the feeling here among many observers of the governmental scene is that Reagan, for the long run, is going to maintain his high standing with the American public and hence with foreign leaders.

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