The Anderson difference

"Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing," said John Anderson. He was quoting Emerson on behalf of the campaign approach to which Mr. Anderson credited his unexpected success in Vermont and Massachusetts. But the success itself was so astonishing that Mr. Anderson's close second-place finishes stole the thunder of those who came in first. Most ironically, in Democratic Massachusetts, where native son Kennedy had at last won a dramatic victory over President Carter, Mr. Anderson turned much of the focus to the Republicans -- and the independents who became GOP for a day.

More important, the public response to his kind of candidacy gave at least some slight promise of shifting the focus from the horserace terms of who's-ahead? to what-did-he-say-or-do? A prominent theme among canvassed Anderson voters was that they felt he was saying what he really thought, whether they agreed or not. This is an impression that Mr. Anderson must take care not to lose now that a whiff of the sweet smell of success may tempt advisers toward a bit of trimming here and there to broaden the prospects. To do so would be contrary to his own campaign manager's version of the emerging electorate: "Just telling people what they want to hear . . . is not what people want. They want someone to stand up and tell them what should be said."

This is not to say that Mr. Anderson's opponents may not be saying what should be said by their own lights. What he does is demonstrate his self-styled Anderson difference. He alone tells the Iowa farmers that he supports a Soviet grain embargo; tells the New Hampshire gun-control opponents that he supports gun control; tells a supposedly hawkish public he would not have suspended the SALT II process; tells car-happy Americans there should be a 50-cent tax on gasoline (with proceeds to cut social security taxes) in order to actually do something to conserve the oil that makes America so vulnerable abroad. Some wonder about Mr. Anderson's position on another energy issue, nuclear power. He was known as a leading proponent of it in Congress. Now he says things like "We should halt the further issuance of construction permits till work is commenced on a waste isolation project." Even here he seems willing to say something specific at least.

The candidates have many primaries to go before they sleep, and many promises to keep -- to paraphrase a post-Emersonian New England writer, Robert Frost. Mr. Anderson's showing in "liberal" Eastern precincts is not predicted to hold up farther south and west. Mr. Bush, who edged him out in Massachusetts, belittles him as a national candidate. Mr. Reagan, who edged him out in Vermont , says he is outside the Republican stream.

But the ups and downs of both these leading candidates suggest that American voters can be unpredictable. At a minimum the now vivid presence of Mr. Anderson may nudge the whole field toward greater response to the yearning in every voter to be told not what he wants to hear but what a candidate believes -- and just possibly what the voter doesn't know he wants to hear until he hears it.

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