Washington — President Carter reached the halfway mark in the campaign in a "running scared" stance, openly predicting victory but conducting a come-from-behind kind of campaign.
As one top White House aide told the Monitor, Mr. Carter is, indeed, "running a provocative campaign," one that is directed at "smoking Reagan out."
Unable to draw Mr. Reagan into a one-on-one debate, the President now is trying to spark a public dialogue with his opponent by way of making sharp-edged utterances that evoke Reagan responses.
Here this aide says: "To those critics who say the President is running a mean and savage campaign I say that, yes, there are some words he might have changed, but mostly they were carefully considered words -- made to underscore the stark choice involved in voting for Reagan."
So as the candidates begin their stretch drive, the basic Carter strategy comes down to this:
* To continue to strive for the one-on-one debate the League of Women Voters now has scheduled but which Mr. Reagan -- looking at his polls and seeing he still holds an electoral vote edge -- continues to turn down.
"If Reagan slips some more, he'll change his mind," a Carter political adviser says. This was this man's response to news that Reagan's political strategists had counseled him not to accept the league's offer.
Actually, Reagan aide James Baker had tipped reporters at breakfast last week that Reagan now is adamant on not debating. But he left a door open: "We will keep looking at the numbers," he said.
This means, of course, that Reagan slippage could, before election day, cause the Californian to decide that debating Carter was necessary -- and that a Reagan acceptance would follow.
* Meanwhile, the President has no intention of eschewing what some of his critics are calling the "low road."
He is understood to believe that "war and peace" is the basic issue facing the electorate today -- and his words are calculated and sharp-edged in order to draw a retort from his opponent.
The charge Carter makes strongly suggests that Reagan utterances between 1975 and 1980 on military involvement are indicative of a man who, as president, would more likely get the US into a war than a government under Carter guidance.
It must be noted that when this accusation evoked a sharp Reagan denial, press secretary Jody Powell was ready within minutes with a "hand-out" to the news media of nine alleged incidents where Reagan was made out to have spoken hawkish words.
The Carter intimation at a black church in the South that Reagan was a racist may -- as Carter spokesman Robert Strauss told reporters at lunch on Thursday -- have gone too far, that Carter "may have been carried away a bit by his audience."
But the President is said to really believe that the Republican nominee's use of the words "states' rights" when he spoke earlier in Philadelphia, Miss., was a shorthand phrase which revealed a basic Reagan attitude against the rights of blacks. Reagan angrily denied this.
Carter himself -- not his writers or his advisers -- authored these accusations. He intended them to be provocative on what he sees as an extremely important issue -- the attitudes of Reagan, and himself, toward blacks and minorities. He believes his record and sympathies deserve the votes of these groups.
Within the Carter camp there is, as might be expected, mixed feelings about how the President's "campaign of provocation" has been received.
There is some satisfaction being expressed that, as one aide expressed it, "Reagan has taken the bait".
But there is also some dismay that much of the media has portrayed the sharp-edged Carter charges as evidence of a low-down campaign, one that is demeaning both him and his office and actually hurting his campaign.
Veteran presidential watchers were making this assessment of Mr. Carter's bid for reelection at mid-campaign:
First the positive:
1. It would have been very easy for the Carter forces, so very far behind in the polls in August, to have panicked. They didn't. This was an achievement of itself.
2. The President has used his incumbency fairly well -- finding a number of opportunities where events (or "happenings") have enabled him to be photographed at his desk in the White House being "presidential."
Then the negative:
1. There is little evidence that the President has put together the kind of organization that will be able to turn out every possible potential vote on election day -- and he may well need just that.
2. Carter has shown a tendency to over-state -- and thus has lost some credibility along the way.
3. The Democratic incumbent has on several occasions (most notably on the Stealth bomber controversy) allowed his GOP opponent to place him in a position where it seemed he was not prepared to deal with the question when it came up.
Actually, Carter allowed himself to be put on the defensive for about 10 days. This was particularly evident during the period just following that time when Mr. Reagan was, himself, on the defensive because of "misspeaks" and gaffes.
Carter looked very much on the defensive during the two weeks before the debate.
The Monitor has learned that Carter pollster Pat Caddell now has information that the presidential team regards as "hopeful."
Mr. Caddell's latest polling indicates that Reagan is weak on several key issues, most notably foreign affairs (the peace issue, involved here), urban affairs and social justice, and the economy.
It will be on these issues that the President will be hammering away until election day -- hoping, of course, that he can engage Reagan in a real debate at some point.
But, short of that, Carter -- despite criticism of his "tough" words -- will continue this "provocative" campaign, intending wherever possible to draw Reagan into a war of public utterances.
"We feel our campaign has come along reasonably well since Labor Day," a Carter associate says. "But we need to nail Reagan on these big issues where we feel he is vulnerable."
Former Reagan adviser and respected political analyst, John Sears, says he thinks Reagan "must have the edge" at election day if he is to win. "If the contest is even," he adds, "then Carter's incumbency will be enough to turn the outcome in his direction."