Washington — Ronald Reagan has in effect said "yes" to a presidential debate feeler from Carter national campaign chairman Robert Strauss. President Carter would participate in a three-way first debate including independent candidate John Anderson if Mr. Reagan would agree to a one-on-one second debate.
"Let's make it known right here at this breakfast," Mr. Reagan's debate negotiator James Baker told reporters Sept. 9, "that we will accept that offer. We will give the President that assurance."
On successive days the debate issue had been discussed by the negotiators (Messrs. Strauss and Baker) for the leading candidates simply because the parties are not talking directly these days.
'We must first wait until the League of Women Voters decides on whether Anderson is to be included, whether his percentage is high enough," said Baker. "Then we will be meeting with the Carter people once again."
That meeting appeared more likely with the announcement late Tuesday that the League will invite Anderson to participate in the first presidential debate, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 21 in Baltimore, Md.
So the debate prospect, which has been dimming for the last few weeks, now seems to be moving toward some kind of resolution.
The reason: Both sides (and Mr. Anderson, too, of course) very much want the encounter to take place.
And a motivating force is that both Reagan and Carter are concerned about the adverse political reaction that might result from not having debates or from just a two-man, Reagan vs. Anderson debate.
Reagan is worried that so few people, relatively speaking, would turn on television to watch a Reagan-Anderson match that both men might look bad while the President would appear detached and presidential.
But the Republican nominee also faces the possibility that an articulate and probably more-relaxed Anderson might perform so brilliantly that he could turn Reagan into the "loser" and that this might be a telling blow for the Reagan campaign.
Carter, of course, sees the possibility that if he leaves an empty chair at a Reagan-Anderson debate, he will be perceived by the viewing public as lacking the courage to participate.
"How can you really assure the President that you would give him that second one-on-one debate?" Baker was asked.
"We'll put it in writing," he replied. "Let the National Press Club, or whoever, hold the second debate one-on-one, and Reagan will be there."
"But," one reporter asked, "what if Anderson would try to walk in -- something like Nashua?" Baker said he did not see how that could happen if there was a definite agreement in advance by the two parties, Reagan and Carter, that the debate would be restricted to the two of them.
"We'll be having debates," said Baker. "You can count on that. There'll probably be two. I would say the odds now are about 70-30 that the debates will occur."