Washington — A key aide of President Carter volunteers that "only if necessary will we do a real job on Ronald Reagan." This source was responding to the reports, coming mainly out of Reagan circles, that the Carter campaign strategy would be to center on trying to undrscore Mr. Reagan's age and other alleged liabilities.
"We aren't going to dig up all those speeches of Reagan's, along with his statements on TV and while campaigning, in order to illustrate his personal failings unless we have to," this source said.
"You know," he added, "I'm referring to all those vague generalities Reagan uses to tell how he stands on the issues; those statistics that are so interesting but inaccurate; and those slips he makes that show he doesn't really understand the issues."
The informant did not define what he meant by "necessary" -- what, indeed would move President Carter to an effort to make Mr. Reagan, himself, the target this fall, and not so much his record as governor of California. "We'll just have to see," he said.
But another source -- a top Carter political adviser -- says that "only if Reagan gets personal will we get personal."
However, knowledgeable observers in this city seem to believe that if the President finds himself far behind Mr. Reagan in the polls after the Democratic convention, he may well seek to point out -- in the television material that will be readied at that time -- the risks involved in electing a president who will be almost 70 at the time he would would take over the executive branch.
The Reagan people are convinced that President Carter will take the "low road." Said one top Reagan associate:
"Carter is going to try to make people believe that Reagan is stupid -- just as he raised the character issue with [US Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy.
"If the race is close, this attack may be somewhat subtle. But if Carter is way behind -- watch out. The snipping will get vicious."
Other elements in the strategy presidential political advisers now are putting together:
* Mr. Carter will once again focus attention on the plight of the hostages in Iran -- calling for their release and emphasizing frequently his concern for them.
The decision to take the hostages out of the obscurity to which they have been consigned for some weeks now comes from findings in polls which show that voters are faulting the President for putting that issue on the back burner.
* Much presidential emphasis will be placed on warning the US and the world about the Soviet Union's aggressive intentions, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Already, this strategy has surfaced in the President's comments at the Venice summit and in subsequent Carter visits to other European nations.
The presidential planning conclusion is this: That the public wants the US to be respected in the world community once again and, therefore, voters are more likely to support a candidate who is somewhat hawkish than one who is perceived as being overly conciliatory.