Sen. Bob Packwood, a moderate from Oregon, thinks he hasn't done a bad job as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The campaign committee, after all, raised $48 million during the last two years, doubled its number of contributors and helped the GOP retain control of the Senate in the 1982 elections.
But Packwood is in danger of losing the post in a highly symbolic vote today that could prove an early test of President Reagan's strength in the Senate. His challenger is Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a conservative, who says the choice is between "a friend of the president" and someone whose "opinions are not sought or followed" by the White House.
There's no question that there is little love lost between Packwood and the White House. Packwood has been at odds with the administration in battles over selling Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia and efforts to restrict legalized abortions.
And last winter, he accused Reagan of endangering the future of the Republican Party by advocating policies that alienated blacks, women, Hispanics and Jews and could leave the GOP a party populated mainly by "white Anglo-Saxon males over 40." He also said that in serious discussions of the federal budget Reagan has a tendency to wander from the subject with stories about people who buy vodka with food stamps.
Packwood apologized for the remarks, but the White House demanded that 8 million copies of a fund-raising letter bearing Packwood's picture and signed by Reagan be destroyed -- a move that cost the campaign committee $2 million.
A deep bitterness still lingers over the incident.
"As someone who is totally loyal to Ronald Reagan, I'd be lying to you if I said I could forget the things Packwood said," one White House aide said this week.
Lugar and presidential spokesmen, however, insist that the White House isn't involved in the move to oust Packwood. They also vehemently deny a report that Lugar supporters used the White House switchboard to track down and proselytize Republican senators who were out of town on the election break.
But Reagan's best friend in the Senate, Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), is deeply involved in the battle. Laxalt, recently selected by the president to become "general chairman" of the Republican Party, says he has become a strategist for Lugar and plans to nominate him when GOP senators caucus today.
Laxalt says he hasn't discussed the matter with Reagan or anyone else in the White House. But he makes it clear that Packwood's style and icy relationship with the president are key elements in the contest.
"It's my view leadership has to be responsive to the president," Laxalt says. "Being a maverick is great, but it's a luxury you can't afford in leadership."
Lugar uses a similar argument.
He says, "Someone who the president regards as a friend" would "probably be more effective in getting things done" as the party prepares for the 1984 elections. Packwood, he says, "does not go to the White House frequently" and "feels his opinions aren't sought or followed."
Packwood says he is miffed by claims of disloyalty to the president. In 1981, he says, only 10 Republican senators voted for the administration more often than he did.
Packwood claims Lugar doesn't have the votes to unseat him. Yesterday, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who is recovering from hip surgery, indicated that he would vote by proxy for Packwood. Goldwater also has been at odds with the Reagan White House from time to time.
"If everyone who has said, 'Bob, I will vote for you' does, I will have 28 votes," Packwood says. That would give him a majority of the 54 Republican senators.
Generally, Packwood's strength is among older, more moderate Republicans and Lugar's is among younger conservatives.
Others discount Packwood's tally, claiming the race is dead even with about six senators holding the balance of power.
Ironically, the hint of White House involvement in the race may benefit Packwood.
"I think some of the outside pressure has been counterproductive," says Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.). "Without outside interference I think Dick Lugar would have won without any trouble."