With less than a week to go before the elections, the nuclear freeze question is gathering controversy almost as fast as it has been gathering steam, thanks largely to the Reagan administration.
Until recently, backers could say that the proposition, which is up for a vote in nine states, had so little organized opposition that its all-but-certain victory would be a nationwide shout of stop to the international arms race. Who, after all, could favor nuclear war?
But now opponents are moving to make voters see the freeze question as much more than a simple chance to vent emotion over nuclear brinkmanship. In speeches, nationwide mailings, magazine articles and upcoming television shows, the "anti-freeze" side is portraying the proposal as an attack on national security and "anti-defense."
"We could take a beating if they saturate the media just before the election," said Randy Keeler, national coordinator of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign clearinghouse in St. Louis.
On nine state ballots and in 30 counties and cities, including the District of Columbia, the freeze question asks whether voters want their elected officials to press both President Reagan and the Soviet Union to work for a mutually verifiable halt to testing, manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons.
The phrasing, although it differs in each place, is always carefully bilateral, Keeler said, and is obviously nonbinding on the government. It has already passed statewide on the primary ballot in Wisconsin and by 276 city councils, 12 state legislatures, 56 county councils and 446 town meetings, he said, and came two votes short of an endorsement in the House of Representatives last August.
Freeze proponents have collected 2.5 million signatures on petitions.
The freeze is a major issue in California, where polls show voters evenly divided on it but most congressional elections will probably turn on economic issues.
"The nuclear freeze issue is not as cutting as the Democrats thought it would be," White House communications director David R. Gergen told a group of business lobbyists.
But critics say the issue has long-range impact. They appear to be taking their cue from Reagan, who told an Ohio audience earlier this month that the freeze movement was launched "by some who want the weakening of America, and so are manipulating many honest, sincere people."
The critics include well-known ultraconservatives Phyllis Schlafly, retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer and the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, as well as Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and a host of State Department speakers.
They all argue that a freeze would not be verifiable and would lock the United States in an inferior defense position, and that a national vote endorsing it would cripple U.S. negotiators in any future arms talks.
Weinberger and two senators star, with repeated film clips of Soviet rocket launches, in a 25-minute television film against the freeze that was produced and distributed free by the American Security Council Foundation, a conservative defense policy pressure group headquartered in Boston, Va., 60 miles southwest of Washington. The film, titled "Countdown for America," argues that Soviet arms are now superior to U.S. weaponry.
"Well, I think it's apparent why the Soviets are for a nuclear freeze," Weinberger says in the film. "It would leave them in a position of permanent superiority, and that would be a very dangerous thing for America and her allies . . . . " Also appearing are Sens. John G. Tower (R-Tex.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).
Foundation president John Fisher said the $300,000 film will be aired in 40 states this month, including states where the freeze is on the ballot. He said he hopes to raise and spend $1.5 million to show it over the next year.
The State Department sent speakers on 77 trips to 30 states between April 1 and Sept. 30 to explain the administration's nuclear and arms control policies, according to department figures, and the trips included 220 "associated events" like talk shows, radio interviews or panel discussions.
Spokesman Rush Taylor said 46 of the trips were in states with freeze questions on the ballot, and that about half the trips were initiated by the department.
Although informational talks are within the law, Keeler said the timing and targeting of these trips "raise the question of whether taxpayers' money ought to go for this kind of thing."
Freeze backers raised the same question over a "research project" begun in the late summer by students at the Defense Department's U.S. War College. They are "studying the nuclear freeze and peace movements" in interviews and visits to activists' offices, according to DOD spokesman Jim Freeman. He said the report will be made public in the spring.
"It is not and has never been the function of the Defense Department to investigate any domestic organization, including in particular and especially those concerned with defense problems," said Jeremy Stone, director of the Federation of American Scientists, which supports the freeze.
A Gallup poll with The Wall Street Journal found businessmen overwhelmingly opposed to a unilateral freeze. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) received 50,000 responses to a question in his voter newsletter asking whether the United States should declare a unilateral nuclear freeze, but the results are not yet tabulated, a spokesman said.
"Not a single resolution has called for unilateral anything. Not one. There is no unilateral freeze movement," Keeler said.
In a counterattack, philanthropist Philip Stern of the Citizens for Common Sense in National Defense said this week he raised $130,000 to make and distribute a 30-second television spot that tries to link 10 GOP members of Congress to rising risks of nuclear war because of their votes against the freeze.