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`He didn't blink'

MIKHAIL Gorbachev was clearly injecting himself into the November elections in the United States when, in the aftermath of the Reykjavik meetings, he spake of ``missing a historic chance'' and adding, ``Let America think. We are waiting. We are not withdrawing our proposals.'' Mr. Gorbachev is counting on an American public reaction that will perceive him as having provided a great peace opportunity -- with President Reagan failing to go along. He'll look to US editorial opinion on this and he'll look to US polls. But he'll especially be watching the results of the elections to see if Reykjavik proved disastrous to Republican candidates.

There was some feeling of letdown among the American people. But after the dust settles, it seems likely that Mr. Reagan, as early polls are now suggesting, will gain politically, at least among the voters, for what with them will probably emerge as their lasting perception: of a President who stood up to the Russians.

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The average voter doesn't understand SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative). But the President has sold the public on the virtues of this nuclear-shield concept. He made that sale during the 1984 campaign. Further, even though SDI is not much more than a gleam in the Pentagon's eye, Reagan has obviously sold the Soviets on our ability to develop this shield. Their eagerness to give up so much in order to wipe out SDI provides the US plan with tremendous credibility.

The pre-Reykjavik assumption, in political circles, was that Reagan would come away with ``something'' that would likely cast a pro-Republican glow over the elections. Whether such a glow would be of much help to GOP prospects was questionable. It did not seem likely to divert the voters from a heavy preoccupation with economic ills that appeared to be helping the Democrats. In other words, it wouldn't have helped the Republicans much -- but it certainly wouldn't have hurt them.

The argument that Reagan (and the Republicans) come out best from the flawed summit is compelling. Remember 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis of that year? I was in Chicago covering a President Kennedy campaign speech just a few hours before the American public learned about the missile sites in Cuba.

Kennedy was oddly vague and lacking in rapport with his audience that night. Little did we know that he was already struggling with knowledge of the sites and with what to do next. Shortly after he returned to Washington, we learned of the terrifying situation.

Now had that been the Bay of Pigs fiasco there is little doubt that it would have impacted negatively on the upcoming general elections. But instead, Kennedy looked exceedingly strong as he finally caused Khruschev to blink. The American people breathed a sigh of relief and promptly went to the polls to show their gratitude by electing many Democrats who looked like losers before the crisis.

Now this summit certainly is eons away from a Cuban missile triumph for this President. So the political fallout could not be nearly so large.

But Republican candidates from every podium will be saying, again and again: ``Reagan did not blink.'' And they will go on to push the Reagan defense approach. And there are a lot of Democrats, too, who respond to this appeal. So, in the end, it could well be a GOP political plus -- and the ``difference'' in deciding some close elections.

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Furthermore, Reykjavik is likely shaping the presidential debate of 1988. Democrat Gary Hart is quoted as saying that Reagan's ``unreasonable attachment to a speculative space-based defensive system'' has cost the world a chance for ``deep reduction and the potential elimination of offensive nuclear weapons.'' Republican Jack Kemp says that Reagan ``walked away from an agreement that violated one of his highest goals, the development of a strategic defense for ourselves and our allies.'' Other candidates will simply have to say where they stand on this issue. Indeed, foreign affairs -- how to deal with the Soviets -- now seems likely, more than the economy, to be the major issue in '88.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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