Washington — Yes, it was the President who called up Ronald Reagan in Detroit to congratulate him and the challenge the GOP nominee to debate. He was far behind in the polls and hungry for the opportunity to have a face-to-face confronttion with his opponent that, he hoped could help turn the race around.
And Reagan accepted, doubtless feeling that he held the debating advantage -- of being able to attack a Carter record with which the public obviously hasn't been all that enchanted.
But now there are some signs that the President may be having some second thoughts about debating.
Keynoer Mo Udall told a group of reporters over breakfast in New York that while he expects Carter will debate, he just might not.
Carter, he said, really "wants at" Reagan. But now, he added, the President thinks there will be simply a series of three-man debates, including Anderson, where he won't be able to have the back-and-forth with Reagan that he still very much desires.
Carter, according to Udall, will accept the three-man context if he also can get the two- man battle. Otherwise, he implised, who knows what Carter may do? He might even, as he did during the primaries, reverse himself and not debate at all.
Democratic national chairman John white responded to hearing about the Udall comments in this way:
"I think there will be debates. But what I would like to see would be a Lincoln-Douglas type of debate -- were we would just get Carter and Reagan together and tell them to have at each other and let the TV and press cover it if they wanted to. That would be a really valuable debate -- much better than the kind we have now which isn't a debate at all."
Actually, the so-called debates that now are held are not much more than a variation on a press conference. But press conferences, while valuable, are only what they profess to be: a mass interview. And that's what the modern-day debate has become.
But the press conference-debate context, as unsatisfactory as it was the begin with, began to deteriorate even more some years back when it was decided that it was only fair to let all or most of the candidtes participate.
For a good example of this deterioration, take a looke at the recent "debates" among the GOP presidential candidates during the primaries. They turned out to be tame, joint appearances, not debates.
As a result Ronald Reagan was said to have "lost" one debate because he did not choose to participate -- not because of anything he said or did not say in the debate.
and later, Reagan "won" one of these socaleld debates because he took the charitable position that the debate should be opened to other presidential candidates besides just George Bush. And poor Bush "lost" because he wanter to abide by the prearrangement for a two-man, Bush vs. Reagan debate.
Now, of course, according to the rules that have been set down, it may be that Anderson may not be able to show that he has the necessary 15 percent support in the polls that he must have to be allowed in the right with Reagan and Carter.
But if Anderson is there, the President does seem to have a justifiable complaint: that he will have two Republicans, not just one, in there throwing punches at him and at his record.
Anderson, of course, might turn out to be truly independent, as he says he is. Thus, he might conceivably be striking out at both of the major candidates and, possibly, even livening up the contest.
But if history of the recent debates tells us anything, the presence of Anderson is more likely to tame the encounter and confuse the viewers. some reporters talking to viewers after the Des Moines debate last winter, found that people found the multiplicity of participants very confusing, so much so that they had great difficulty remembering who had said what.
So Anderson would doubtless tend to do more to confuse than to enlighten. Further, without any party platform to restrain him, he would be more "loose" than Reagan and Carter -- and thus perhaps better positioned to carve out fresh, imaginative approaches on the issues that might make him look good.
Actually, Anderson's participation might make a useful contribution in terms of public debate on the issues. But the eventual race is going to be between Carter and Reagan. Why divert the voters opportunity of sizing up the two real antagonists by having a third candidate in the ring, at least for all of these socalled debates?
What makes most sense, it would seem, is to have three one-on-one debates followed by a three-man contest that would include Anderson.
And wouldn't it be wonderful if at least one of those one-on-one encounters could be a free-for-all of the Lincoln-Douglas variety?