Washington — The prospect of casting John B. Anderson in the popular role of David against a Jimmy Carter Goliath is leading President Carter to rethink his refusal to debate the independent challenger.
Ironically, Mr. Carter's second thoughts -- still conditional on Congressman Anderson's getting on enough state ballots or otherwise mounting a respectable effort -- give a significant boost to the Anderson candidacy.
But the likelihood also has increased that Americans in 1980 will get to witness presidential debates -- which Mr. Carter himself says were decisive in determining the 1976 outcome, when as many as 83 percent of the public watched him best Gerald Ford in two of three contests. Previously, Mr. Carter had implied he might not debate even expected GOP nominee Ronald Reagan if Mr. Anderson were included in a presidential debate tourney.
No one in Washington doubts that Mr. Carter's second thoughts on debating are based on anything but political realities -- chiefly, that Anderson voters are already those turned off by the Reagan and Carter candidacies and that alienating more voters could not build up the Anderson constituency and motivate them to vote.
Carter backers refer to surveys -- such as the June 5 NBC poll that shows Americans by a 5-to-3 margin disagreeing with the President's refusal to debate Mr. Anderson as well as Mr. Reagan -- in acknowledging the President's vulnerability on the issue.
But there are other calculations as well.
"Carter thinks he can beat Anderson in a debate," says Anderson pollster Richard Bennett. "Reagan is eager to get Anderson to debate, too, because he's beaten him twice already." Except for media attention after the Iowa debate. "Anderson has lost ground when he's gone into a debate this year," Mr. Bennett points out."In New Hampshire, we were ahead of [Sen. Howard H.] Baker by three points before the Wednesday night debate. Baker slammed Anderson hard on the 50 -cent gas tax, and our Thursday and Friday research showed Anderson lost six points to Baker, going from third to fourth. In Illinois, going into the debate we had seven points on Reagan. After the debate, we were four points behind."
Identifying the risks of an Anderson debate for the President, independent pollster Burns Roper says, "This could turn into a David-Goliath contest, with everone favoring David [Anderson]. . . . Debating Anderson gives Anderson more credibility."
But pollster Roper says a danger also lurks for Mr. Anderson in a Carter debate.
I'd tell Anderson to do everything he could, while protesting, to make sure Carter doesn't actually debate him," Mr. Roper says. "He stands to win more by the appearance of the President's unfair abuse of power than in appearing with the President on a platform. Anderson can best him in public sympathy. But Mr. Carter, Though lacking the style or flair of Reagan, has quickness and a formidible command of facts."
"Anderson's strength is based on dislike of Carter and Reagan, especially among the moderate voters," Mr. Bennett says, "and those who don't normally participate in elections. His challenge is to get them out to vote.
"Issues aren't decisive with these voters. It's Anderson's character and quality, his style, his speaking his mind. Half of those who voted for him in Massachusetts disagreed with him on the gas tax, for example.
"In theory, the turned-off voter is half the electorate -- but half aren't registered and 60 percent of those registered don't vote."
Despite his own campaign hurdles. Mr. Anderson affects the Carter-Reagan balance of power.
Even in the South, where both Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan are strong, independent Anderson is drawing 10 percent of the vote, Carter campaign sources concede.
"Anderson draws moderate votes from Carter in the South and can hand those states to Reagan," Mr. Bennett says.
In Mississippi, where Jimmy Carter Beat Mr. Ford by 51 percent to 49 percent in 1976, if Mr. Anderson draws 2 percent from the President's moderate/liberal voter group in a 1980 Carter-Reagan contest that close, Governor Reagan would win. Similarly, 5 percent support for Mr. Anderson in Louisiana and 4 percent in Missouri would likewise reverse Carter 1976 wins in these states if the races there were as close as before.
Congressman Anderson's strongest states are outside the South: Oregon, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, where his campaign polls put him near even with the other candidates.
Ambiguity lingers over what conditions would lead Mr. Carter to reach a formal agreement to debate. Common Cause, the public-interest group, proposed four criteria June 12 for including an independent candidate of Mr. Anderson's stature: his commitment to a nationwide campaign effort; receiving substantial opinion poll support; likely qualifying for the ballot in enough states to deliver an Electoral College majority; and the ability to raise enough money to run a wide national campaign.