Mr. Reagan has spotlight trouble

When the spotlight of public and press attention was focused on President Carter all other possibilities for the next presidency of the US benefited. Do you remember when it was taken for granted by almost all the political pundits that Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts could have the Democratic nomination for the taking, and probably the presidency as well?

Well, Senator Kennedy then declared his candidacy. The spotlight swung over and focused on him. We all know what happened next. Senator Kennedy did not get the Democratic nomination. We can even see in retrospect that he never had a real chance of getting it. His chances simply melted away once people began looking him over thoughtfully.

Then the spotlight shifted back on Mr. Carter, and Carter popularity plunged to the lowest point on record for any president in this century -- and there have been some pretty low lows. At the Democratic convention Mr. Carter did poorly. He got the nomination, but Senator Kennedy stole the show, and got the curtain calls.

And then the spotlight shifted over to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Reagan found himself almost at once in unaccustomed trouble. It started on Aug. 16 when he sent his running mate, George Bush, off to Peking to reassure them that US relations with China would remain unchanged under a Reagan presidency. But in response to a reporter's questions he repeated that he still favored opening an "official" US government office in Taiwan. And he used the phrase "Republic of China" when speaking of the government on Taiwan. Official US terminology now refers to Taiwan as a "province" of China.

Two days later, Aug. 18, he delivered a rip- roaring big defense campaign speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars which was billed as being "pro-peace" on a basis of strong defense. At the last moment he wrote back into that speech a phrase which his own aides had already crossed out, a reference to the Vietnam war as having been "a noble cause."

On the following day, the Gallup poll showed a sudden and massive improvement in Carter's rating, up to within a single point of Reagan's, 38 to 39. And on that same day the People's Daily, the official voice of the government in Peking , printed a chilling attack on Mr. Reagan calling his position a holdover from a "bankrupt" policy of the past and declaring that the opening of an "official" US office in Taiwan would "destroy the basic principle of the normalization of US- China relations and surely affect normalization."

Mr. Bush got to Peking the next day. He was received by the top officials of the Chinese government and given a formal dinner. But the visits were relatively brief. The atmosphere was chilly, although Mr. Bush had been the US representative in Peking during the Ford administration. It was made perfectly clear in various official Chinese publications that Mr. Reagan is not their favorite candidate.

On Friday, Aug. 22, Mr. Reagan found himself at a convention of fundamentalist preachers in Dallas, got maneuvered into doubting the doctrine of evolution and sounding as though he was ready to abandon the constitutional separation of church and state.

On that same day, Mr. Bush, still in Peking, was reported trying to explain away the earlier Reagan remark about the "Republic of China" as having been the result of speaking "out of habit" and asserting that Mr. Reagan "would not turn the clock back" on China policy. But on that same day Mr. Reagan was still saying that he favored "official relations" with Taiwan.

Much was made of the various interpretations of Reagan remarks about China, much also of the "noble cause" phrase which reopened unhappy memories of the Vietnam war. There was also some wonderment over Mr. Reagan getting into the old argument over evolution. And is he really wanting to depart from "separation of church and state?"

More significant than the specific issues which seemed to some observers to come out of ancient history was a report in the New York Times at the week's end of "growing tension between the press and the Reagan campaign." That followed an episode on the Reagan plane when Mr. Reagan complained to the press of distortion of his views and that the reporters with him were "more interested in finding something sensational than in printing the facts."

When a candidate starts complaining about press treatment he is usually in trouble. The essence of the matter is that Reagan remarks are getting more detailed and critical attention now that the campaign is officially open. Reporters are pressing him harder. He and his aides are showing signs of irritation and resentment. It was not a happy opening week for the Reagan campaign.

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