Washington — A one-on-one debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan now seems possible -- but many complications remain. Mr. Reagan seems to be softening on the idea of such an encounter with the President. He now is leaving the impression that if the League of Women Voters would be willing to exclude independent John Anderson in a future encounter, he might go along with the plan.
In the Carter camp there is absolutely no sign of giving ground on debating Anderson in any context.
"We still will debate Reagan," a White House aide says. "That's always been our position. And it remains unchanged after the Baltimore debate."
Democratic national chairman John White still doubts that Reagan will debate without Anderson being included. "No matter what he now is saying, he needs Anderson in there to prop him up," he says. "We are closer to no debate now than ever before."
In the White House on the morning after the Baltimore debate a feeling along this line was being expressed. That as the President rose in the polls (as he has in recent weeks) Mr. Reagan would finally reach a place where he would need a debate with Carter so much that he would abandon his insistence on including Anderson.
Thus, in the wake of the first debate of this fall presidential campaign, there seemed to be "movement" toward a TV encounter between the President and his chief challenger -- but just how much "movement" remained cloudy.
Reagan campaign manager William Casey told reporters over breakfast Sept. 22 that "Reagan still feels that Carter has an obligation to face Anderson as well as Reagan." He said he saw little likelihood of such a get-together.
"It's up to Carter," Casey said.
One White House source says he thinks that new polls, showing Carter gaining an edge over Reagan, may be helping to soften the Reagan position.
"I somehow feel," this source says, "that we're eventually going to get this Carter-Reagan debate. Maybe we're moving toward it now."
But another administration source observed: "By the time Reagan gets so hungry that he is hollering for a one-one-one with Carter -- well, who knows, maybe the President will be too occupied with important problems to debate."
It does appear, however, that the League of Women Voters will be agreeable to both the Carter and Reagan forces -- some kind of a compromise that would allow for a head-on encounter.
Meanwhile, both the Carter and Reagan camps are indicating their campaign strategies were unaffected by the Sunday night debate.
One key aide of the President acknowledged that Anderson "probably helped himself by getting all that TV exposure."
But the President's strategy, this aide said, "will still be to make Reagan the full target.
"We're running against Reagan," he said, "and that's the way it will continue right through the election."
As to the Reagan strategy, Casey said that "nothing will change." He said that the press and public now had heard what Reagan had to say on the issues, and that from now on the challenger's strategy is to continue to articulate these positions each day.