Washington — The Great Political Debate now begins. Even before the contestants walk on the stage Sept. 21 in Baltimore, they are seeking to make points. Ronald Reagan, through aide James Baker, says that "even if we lost the debate with Anderson, we will come out ahead because the President is coming under so much criticism for not participating."
Jimmy Carter, via Democratic Party chairman John White, concedes that nonparticipation is a big negative but that his will be wiped out in the first debate.
"Anderson will clobber Reagan," he predicts. "Further, I think that Reagan's people fear this and would like to crawl out of it if they can. Maybe they still will."
In response to what Mr. White said, Mr. Baker counters he is confident that Mr. Reagan would carry through on debating John Anderson, although it is still "possible" he would change his mind.
"You can expect that sort of comment from White," says Baker. "But he knows we offered them everything they could want, including a round robin in which each candidate would face the others one-to-one. And they refused. He knows the President is going to face intense criticism -- and he is trying to change the subject."
Actually, Carter campaign chairman Robert Strauss earlier this week had indicated the President might accept an initial three-way debate if he could be guaranteed a second, one-on-one contest. But when the League of Women Voters offered this kind of scheduling on Wednesday, the Carter forces turned it down.
Why? White House insiders say Carter, himself, made the final decision. He simply felt that the first debate he would enter would be the all-important one -- and the he could not afford, politically, to provide that forum to a third-party candidate who might take votes away from him by such a buildup.
It was a tactical decision, pure and simple. Mr. Strauss admits this, calling it an expression of self-interest.
But Strauss also charges that the Reagan position is based on self-interest -- conditioned on the desire to help himself by trying to help the Anderson candidacy.
Here, again, the Reagan people -- notably Baker -- cite the one-on-one round robin suggestion to which Reagan agrees.
To big a risk, say the Carter people, since the order of these one-on-one contests would be determined by lot.
Thus it seems that Carter has decided it was better "politically" to take the inevitable storm of criticism for being unwilling to debate with Anderson and Reagan in Baltimore than he involved in what he sees as an Anderson buildup that might badly damage the President's chances of catching up with Reagan.
As it is, Anderson already may be winning debating points just by getting all the attention -- and sympathy -- first, by being included in the initial debate, and later by Carter's unwillingness to debate when the Illinois congressman was included.
Is the Reagan-Anderson debate locked up? White says it is "in cement." But the sponsoring League of Women Voters indicates there will be continued efforts to bring Carter into the contest.
And there is evidence that White House political advisers are keeping a close eye on reaction from public and the press.
"Could the reaction be so strong and widespread that the President might change his mind?" a reported asked a Carter aide. The answer was "no." But some savvy observers in Washington are say it could be "maybe."
Whatever happens now it seems clear that the debate has begun in earnest. Daily, even hourly, new charges and counterchanges are coming from the contestants.
Some observers here are asking whether the debate, itself, will turn out to be anticlimatic to the predebate activity.