Election '80: 'popularity contest'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The "personality" issue has been the dominant factor in the primaries -- and could well determine the outcome of the general election. A number of key political observers say that the main reason President Carter has almost eliminated Senator Kennedy is because of the senator's so-called "character" problem.

The Reagan runaway on the GOP side, pundits say, stems in largest part from his appealing personality.Also a help is widespread voter recognition that comes from his film career and his years in the political spotlight.

Finally, these analysts feel that if it is "Carter vs. Reagan" in the fall, the voters are much more likely to choose on the basis of which candidate they like better, or trust more, than on the basis of political ideology.

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However, they stress inflation and the economy, in general, will probably be the most important factors in voter choice in the fall, next to the personality issue.

But current assessments of the rapidly- closing primary period disclose that foreign, affairs seems to be strong, if not stronger, then the economic issue -- with the President benefiting richly from crises abroad.

In fact, some experts now see the possibility that some additional US foreign affairs crises might swing the election toward the President in November.

A surprising finding of both political reporters and pollsters is that Mr. Carter has been able to benefit from these crises, even though his involvement in Afghanistan and Iran have not been successful.

Pollster Robert Teeter, meeting with reporters over breakfast, said that another international flareup at or just before the November election might well cause the voters to once more rally behind the President.

Independent presidential candidate John Anderson's chief strenght, experts now conclude, is his perceived personal independence, strength of conviction, and adherence to principles.

And the feeling among political observers is growing that whether Mr. Anderson's bid for the presidency might become actually competitive will depend on his ability to maintain this appealing image.

At this point, experts see little likelihood that the Carter-Reagan contest will turn out to be an ideological struggle, with Mr. reagan championing the far right and PResident Carter expressing the views of moderation.

"Neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Carter will be a Goldwater or a McGovern," says pollster Teeter. "neither will be a fringe candidate. And there just is no evidence that Reagan would be a challenger for the kook right."

One political analyst makes the case for the dominance of the "personality" issue in the fall election in this way: Both candidates are really going after the same center or right of center voters -- the mainstream.

"Sure, they will have different positions and some different solutions. But there will be a conservative lilt in what both Carter and Reagan will be saying -- enough so that most voters will be deciding on the basis of which of the two they think is going to be the better leader and which they think is the more appealing."

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