Washington — The contestants in the Baltimore debate did the unforgivable: They failed to come up with some kind of misspeak or blooper or with a demeanor or a show of emotion that would have made it easy for the media to say who "won" or "lost."
Oh, yes, Mr. Anderson expressed a lot of intensity at first, enough so that one observer commented that he thought the candidate's "toenails might have been on fire." But Anderson soon calmed a bit and went on to be his usual very knowlegeable self. And the very exposure he achieved by this TV opportunity (some 50 million people evidently were watching, at least at the beginning) had to amount to a decided plus for the Anderson campaign.
And Ronald Reagan, again at first, showed that even a veteran actor can feel the pressure of such an important performace when he groped a few times for words. But for 99 percent of the time Mr. Reagan was his old, relaxed self -- reinforcing the convictions of Reagan supporters that he should be president and , perhaps, through some of his answers, easing the anxieties of those viewers who have thought the Californian was an aggressive person who was just itching to get the US involved in a war.
There were polls on "who won" taken in the first hours after the debate. Some professors gave Anderson the edge for being, as they saw it, the more skillful debater,but maybe these raters didn't care too much for Mr. Reagan to begin with. After all, Reagan doesn't score very high among those in the academic community -- and Anderson does.
Some reporters polled politicians, but mostly those political leaders were providing predictable answers, asserting that their favorite had come out ahead, through the exposure the TV opportunity provided if nothing else.
My favorite poll came from veteran political writer Robert Roth of the Philadelphia Bulletin. On the morning after the debate Mr. Roth unveiled the "Roth poll" to a group of reporters who were sitting around awaiting a breakfast gettogether with Mr. Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey.
Roth, coming into downtown Washington from a suburb on an early-morning bus, interviewed every single rider, and came up with this finding:
Of the four people on the bus (three women and one man) one said she had watched the debates the night before. The other three said they had gome to bed instead of watching.
The one watcher called the result "a draw."
We concede that there was one slight flaw in the Roth poll. Obviously, he didn't ask the bus driver what his opinion was. Roth said that the sign on the front of the bus prohibited such a conversation.
But Roth did talk to all the bus riders. His base was thus most impressive.When do Gallup and Harris say they have interviewed more than a fraction of the US voters when the come out with their findings on what US voters are saying about the candidates?
Seriously, in the absence of participant miscues and enlightening polls the media have had to lean on that old standby called "conventional wisdom" in assessing the debate's outcome. And, since newspersons and commentators receive this message of wisdom in varying ways, the judgments made on what actually happened do differ somewhat.
Yet there was somewhat of a consensus among columnists, political writers, and editorials that the generally effective if less than spectacular performance of Messrs. Reagan and Anderson had to help their campaigns. And that the President's failure to participate certainly didn't help his campaign -- and may well have been damaging.
The consensus also seems to be that the debate did contribute to public enlightment on the contestants as persons and on their positions on the issues.
Also, it seems clear that one exceptionally good thing came out of this debate: It was not, indeed, "decided" on superficialities such as appearance or style.