Carter ready to compromise on 1st debate?

The debate over whether to debate has taken a new turn. President Carter seems to be wavering a bit on his insistence that the first debate be one-on-one with Ronald Reagan.

Instead, presidential negotiator Robert Strauss now is saying Mr. Carter might accept a three-way encounter, including John Anderson, if he can be guaranteed that the second TV engagement would be confined to himself and Mr. Reagan.

"It is our strong preference to debate Reagan alone in the first debate. And we almost insist that we be assured that this be the first debate," the Carter campaign chairman said over breakfast with reporters Sept. 8.

Still, Strauss indicated the President might accept a three-way initial debate if a second one-on-one could be guaranteed. But he said: "I haven't talked this over with the President yet."

Thus Strauss was sending up a trial balloon -- indicating a new possible debating context without completely commiting Carter to it.

Strauss said he was confident there would be "probably just two [debates] -- because time is running out on setting these up."

What came through in the Strauss comments was that the President is not ready to accept a debate-less campaign.

"He wants debates to show how he differs with Reagan," STrauss said.

So there is this presidential giving of ground -- from the position of just a few days ago that there would be no debates unless the first one left Mr. Anderson out to now where Carter would possibly accept a three-way context (unpalatable to him though it may be) rather than lose the opportunity to debate Reagan along the way.

Over in the Reagan camp there is an indication that the candidate might accept the new Carter terms -- if, indeed, the President would agree to such an arrangement. There was some skepticism, however, over whether Strauss could "deliver" Carter's agreement to such terms.

Yet the Reagan position remained: no debates at all unless they include Anderson. Reagan wants as many as six debates, with Anderson in them all.

Strauss was asked whether an impasse had been reached on the debates. "No," he said. "Those are your words. But maybe we are trapped. Maybe there will be no debates."

But it was after calling the Reagan position "politically understandable" and saying he did not blame the Reagan people for wanting to build up Anderson by letting him on the debates that Strauss seemed to move to new ground on the Carter position.

Could the President win without the debates? "Yes," said Strauss. "But it will be difficult."

"What if Reagan and Anderson debate and the commentators keep talking about Carter's absense? How will the President look?" he was asked.

"Like a bum," said Strauss with a smile.

"Like a bum," said Strauss with a smile.

"Like a bum," said Strauss with a smile.

"Like a bum," said Strauss with a smile.

So the President now is shifting his position in an effort to ward off the embarrassment that would follow a Reagan-Anderson debate where his absence might become the chief subject of the evening -- and where he might inevitably be the loser.

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