Washington — John Anderson's hopes for the White House hang on a chain of "ifs." And the next big "if" -- in his inclusion in the presidential debates -- could be the most crucial of all.
The independent challenger's prospects for getting into the first debate -- tentatively set for Sept. 18 in Baltimore -- are imperiled by the criteria set by the League of Women Voters, sponsors of the televised forums.
The league says an independent or third- party candidate has to have at least 15 percent of the voters behind him in national polls "compiled by Aug. 26" to get into the debate.
Both the 15 percent threshold and the timing of the polls work against Mr. Anderson, most opinion experts agree. In the latest Gallup and NBC polls, Anderson slipped below the 15 percent mark -- in the period the public was following the two major party conventions.
Moreover, the Carter-Mondale campaign's ambiguous position on the debates jeopardizes Anderson's chances.
"As long as we're assured several one-on- one debates with [Ronald] Reagan, we would consider a debate with other candidates who qualify in other ways," a Carter spokesman says. This stance could give Mr. Carter leverage to enforce the 15 percent ruling or to limit Anderson to one debate, under the threat of not debating at all, political analysts say.
"The best way to eliminate Anderson is to use the polls taken 10 days or two weeks after the Democratic convention," says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine.
"Candidates traditionally get a blip in support after the conventions; for Democrats it's four or five points," Mr. Gergern says. "This would put Anderson down two or three points." (An Associated Press-ABC News poll taken Aug. 16-17 among "likely voters" showed 39 percent preferred Reagan, 32 Carter, 13 Anderson -- a "blip" of 10 points for Carter and a slip of 1 point for Anderson.)
"Anderson is just two weeks away from picking his own vice-president, which could help his standing," Gerger adds. "The Anderson people rightly feel he should be judged by polls taken in September. And 10 percent seems a more reasonably threshold."
Setting criteria for the debates is tough, most experts agree, but both the debates themselves and Anderson's inclusion are critical.
"There's no simple way to do this," says Fred Wertheimer, senior vice-president of Common Cause, the public interest group that earlier proposed criteria to the league. "Personally, I would want some breathing room beyond the conventions before taking the polls."
"Debates are essential in the 1980 contest," Mr. Wertheimer says. "They will provide tens of millions of people with major direct experience with the candidates. The question of Anderson's inclusion is critical to this election and the election process."
Albert H. Cantril, president of the National Council on Public Polls, calls the 15 percent threshold "arbitrary." "There's no basis for it," he says.
It would be better to use polls taken over a period of time -- from early or mid-July to late August -- he suggests. The early polls, such those taken in August, are less firm than later polls. Mr. Cantril says.
"By and large, major national polls use more refined techniques in the last polls before the election," he says. "The samples are usually larger. Unlikely voters are filtered out. Undecided voters are allocated. These techniques are not being used at this time."
Cantril says the use of polls for deciding who get into debates is "an inappropriate use of public polls. Essentially, polls are taking the heat for the league's political decision."
The debates themselves can have a tremendous impact on the polls, experts say. If Anderson does not qualify for the first debate, his exclusion could diminish his chances of qualifying for a later debate.
"Debates are absolutely crucial to Anderson," says West Coast pollster Mervin Field. "He's hanging by his fingernails at the first ledge. If he slips, he falls. If he makes it over the first ledge, he has a chance."
But the 1980 perils of John Anderson will not be over with a single feat.
"Never before has a candidate had so many important tests in so short a time, " Mr. Field says. "He has to get into the debates, do well, get on ballots in the states, get money from the public, get retroactive federal funds through the courts, pick a credible vice-president -- and it all has to happen in the next 30 days."
Anderson pollster Richard Bennett complains "the preference question" in the polls that the league will review "is really a bad question." The Harris survey tests "likely voters," Gallup "registered voters," Roper "certain" voters, and CBS "the probable electorate.
"There are techniques for narrowing preferences which are not used in the public polls," Mr. Bennett says. Further, the public is simply not yet tuned into the presidential race, he indicates: "If you want to use polls to keep Anderson out of the race, this is the time -- before Labor Day -- to do it. . . ."State polling I'm doing now in many parts of the country shows 50 to 60 percent of the people are undecided."