WASHINGTON -- President Bush, who has been accusing Democrats of playing election-year politics with defense, has started to do the same himself, suggesting that he might save the jobs of defense workers whose careers are threatened by the end of the Cold War.
This represents a significant shift for Mr. Bush, who has canceled dozens of weapons programs, trimmed the armed forces and ordered some 125 domestic bases closed with little apparent regard for the impact on people and local economies. By some government estimates, these cuts could lead to job losses of 1.4 million by 1995.
But attempting to shore up support last week in Texas, one of the most important states to his re-election hopes, Mr. Bush indicated he might take steps to help keep F-16 aircraft production lines open beyond 1994 to save at least 3,000 jobs.
"He's already made his cuts," Lawrence J. Korb, a former defense official in the Reagan administration, said yesterday. "But what he can do is send signals to these people that they can expect a softer landing than they thought he was giving them."
In California, where his termination of the B-2 stealth bomber after 20 planes -- instead of 132 or 75 under two earlier Bush plans -- has rocked the aviation industry, the president tried to argue that Democratic rival Bill Clinton represented a bigger threat to the defense industry.
Mr. Bush warned a crowd of defense workers that "reckless" Democratic budget-cutting could send "a shock wave" through the state's economy. He mocked Democratic plans to use defense funds to rebuild the civilian economy, saying, "The defense budget is more than a piggy bank for folks who want to get busy beating swords into pork barrels."
Mr. Clinton advocates a more aggressive federal role in easing the post-Cold War conversion of defense jobs to civilian employment and backs greater investment in civilian high technology.
But he has embraced the C-17 cargo plane and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor plane, both of which have been plagued by cost overruns and development problems. In addition, Mr. Clinton drew accusations of "pandering" for votes in the Connecticut and Rhode Island primaries by supporting the costly Seawolf submarine, which Mr. Bush has canceled. About 21,000 jobs in )) those states are tied directly to the project.
As the election draws nearer, Mr. Bush has responded to demands of those in industry and the military that he ease the pain of defense cuts.
In the last two months, the administration has unveiled a incentives, including cash payments of up to $20,000, to entice civilian employees to quit the Defense Department rather than face layoffs. Benefits for overseas troops who leave military service were also increased to help them find homes and jobs.
On June 19, Mr. Bush gave in to long-standing appeals from the defense industry by announcing that companies would no longer have to pay royalties to the government for Pentagon-sponsored research that leads to production of commercial products. Two weeks later, he authorized a deal that would keep alive the politically popular V-22.
This courting of the defense community marks a new phase in a re-election campaign that has tried to exploit Mr. Bush's power as incumbent president to counter perceptions of weakness or vulnerability.
Although top administration officials have acknowledged that defense cuts would not be painless, they have repeatedly responded to protests by saying the Pentagon is "not an employment or social welfare agency."
Defense contractors have complained that Mr. Bush has been uncaring by keeping a "hands-off" approach to the industry's transition to a post-Cold War economy.
Mr. Bush startled industry executives July 30 when he told a network of Texas radio stations he would take "a new look" at his administration's long-standing opposition to the sale of F-16s to Taiwan, a transaction that would allow General Dynamics Corp. to keep F-16 production at its Fort Worth, Texas, plant running through the end of the decade.
"Of course we'd like to see [the] line stay open," Mr. Bush said.
His comments -- which may also signal the first break with U.S. arms policy toward Taiwan in 10 years -- came one day after Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and other top Texas Democrats put the White House on the defensive over whether to rescue Texas voters from impending layoffs.
General Dynamics had announced that it would cut 5,800, or nearly 30 percent, of the jobs at its Fort Worth division by the end of 1994 because of declining orders for F-16s. Although the Pentagon has planned a final order of 24 planes next year to close out the program, company executives are hoping that foreign sales -- especially a $3 billion deal with Taiwan for 150 planes -- will help extend the life of the Fort Worth operation.
Besides averting at least 3,000 job losses tied to F-16 production, the Taiwan deal could mean $900 million for subcontractors in Connecticut, $303 million for California and $142 million for Maryland, where Westinghouse Electric Corp. produces APG-68 radars and generators for the aircraft, said Joe W. Stout, a General Dynamics spokesman.
A senior aircraft industry executive, who did not want to be identified, said Mr. Bush now seems inclined to reverse course on the Taiwan sale because in Texas, "there's a lot of sensitivity that jobs are going down and a perception that the Bush administration wasn't going to help."