WASHINGTON -- Among the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, Steve Forbes is the most ardent champion of an anti-ballistic missile defense system, his fervor rivaling that of the president who initiated the program, Ronald Reagan.
It's not yet a mantra, like the idea of a flat tax that the multimillionaire publisher has catapulted to national attention. But when he's asked about national security policy, Mr. Forbes usually responds with a message that resonates among the former president's followers: missile defense.
Should Mr. Forbes achieve success in the early Republican primaries, the issue could become a factor in the Republican race and, perhaps, in this fall's general election debate.
"At the level of presidential politics, there is no one I know of who approaches that level of commitment and philosophical conviction about the need for a national missile defense -- nor has there been since Ronald Reagan," said Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Pentagon official who heads the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank.
Mr. Forbes sponsored and gave about $5,000 to the Committee to Defend America, an advocacy group that Mr. Gaffney launched in 1994 to drum up support for a missile defense system.
In a July 1994 Forbes magazine column, Mr. Forbes wrote that "we should be developing an effective missile defense system with Manhattan Project-like speed."
Last week, interviewed on ABC-TV's "Nightline," he said the U.S. military should get "whatever it needs to make sure that if a missile is fired at the United States, the president has the means to knock that missile down."
Twinned with this view is Mr. Forbes' a deep suspicion of arms-control agreements. Mr. Forbes would abolish the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bars deployment of an ambitious missile-defense program. And he opposed the START long-range missile treaty with Russia, which the Senate ratified, 87-4, Friday.
The missile defense idea became a key part of President Reagan's national security policy in 1983. Proponents argued that without it, America faced missile threats from the Soviet Union and perhaps also from rogue states seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Critics immediately lambasted the idea as preposterous and began referring to it derisively as "star wars." But the idea of missile defense encompasses an array of technologies that could be based on land, at sea or in space.
For Mr. Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative offered a common-sense alternative to the prevailing Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Neither the Reagan administration nor the somewhat less enthusiastic Bush administration had to grapple much with its long-term costs -- estimates ranged up to the tens of billions -- or with its implications for arms control.
The Clinton administration, however, cut the program's funding sharply and opposed fixing a date for deployment.
Citing an intelligence study, White House officials say the United States faces no missile threat from any Third World state for at least a decade. Even if a threat loomed before then, officials say, a defense could be developed and fielded in six years.
The administration also concluded that while a regional defense system would not violate the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, a national system based at more than one location would.
The theory underpinning the United States' ABM treaty with Russia is that an anti-missile defense would diminish stability, not increase it. Russia would expand its offensive weaponry, or at least not reduce it, this argument goes.
"Our big interest ought to be in reducing the arsenal in Russia -- not in protecting us from some rinky-dink nation that 15 years from now might fire on us," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, which promotes nuclear agreements and opposes the building of anti-missile defense systems.
Mr. Forbes counters: "The most important thing one needs to know about the ABM Treaty is its core premise: that it is a good idea to leave the American people permanently and absolutely vulnerable to ballistic missile attack."
A hard core of conservatives kept the Reagan SDI vision alive into the 1990s. But it took the Republicans' capture of both houses of Congress in 1994 to put the issue high on the GOP agenda.
In the most recent defense authorization bill, Republican leaders decided they didn't have the votes to override a presidential veto. They dropped missile-defense language that the White House had opposed.
By now, however, the idea of a missile defense is part of mainstream Republican thinking.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole supports it, though he has ranked it below other foreign-policy priorities. Another presidential candidate, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who led Senate ratification of the START treaty and has made national security the heart of his message, supports the idea. But he disagrees with those who favor deployment as quickly as possible at a number of sites.
Citing polls and focus groups by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, Mr. Forbes says that most Americans believe that the country already has the capacity to shoot down incoming missiles.
"The Luntz research also shows that when told the truth -- namely, that nothing could be done to stop that missile from arriving -- they overwhelmingly support promptly putting into place effective missile defenses," Mr. Forbes said in responses faxed to The Sun.
But Steve Kull, who studies public attitudes at the University of Maryland, says, "This is what you call priming people."
Other polls show the public has doubts about missile defenses' effectiveness and is loath to spend money on them, Mr. Kull argues.