Washington — Ronald Reagan is running like a president -- and this approach just might get him there. Political challengers traditionally thirst for a debate with an incumbent. They want the visibility. They want to attack the incumbent's record while they themselves enjoy the position of more flexibility on the issues. Through the years, challengers at all levels have viewed a debate as an advantage. *TBut Mr. Reagan's advisers, from the beginning of this campaign, have told him that he is ahead, that his chief advantage now is Mr. Carter's widespread unpopularity, and he just might "blow" this apparent victory by making some blooper in a one-on-one debate with a ring-wise, master-of- details President.
The Reagan decision to debate Anderson was something else. He saw the risks of getting damaged as minimal in bucking up against a candidate who seemed to him more hostile to Carter than to himself. Further, Reagan was convinced that the President would have no part of such a debate and that he would be hurt politically by staying out.
In any event, Mr. Reagan's "Let's-be-to-Anderson" approach covered up until recently his real intentions: not to debate with Carter.
At a breakfast with reporters a few days ago key Reagan adviser James Baker sparred with questioners about the possibility of Reagan finally agreeing to debate Carter.
Mr. Baker kept saying, "WE'll debate him -- it's up to Carter." But, as Reagan himself put it, to get that debate the President must first agree to a three-way debate including Anderson or to a round-robin where Carter would have to debate Anderson -- all offers that the Reagan people know the President, in his own self-interest, has to refuse.
So, what now is clear is that the challenger -- perhaps for very good political reasons -- is the one who is being sticky about a one-on-one with Carter.Even the League of Women Voters has put down its barriers to such an encounter. But Reagan isn't buying. TThe Reagan approach to debating the President is reflective of his entire campaign. The generalization can be be made that, as between Reagan Carter, the former has been much more the cool, detached, restrained participant in the struggle for the White House. Yes, Reagan made some "flubs" in the first week or so after Labor Day. But since that time he has been extremely cautious about everything he says. His aides deny that he now is "under wraps." But it is true that he simply isn't as available to the press as he was earlier in the campaign -- obviously a tactic to reduce the chances for a self-damaging ad-lib.
Also, in a very presidential way Mr. Reagn is, for the most part, maintaining an above-the-battle approach. True, the Reagan TV ads this month will attack Mr. Carter's record. But they will not be of the tough, provocative nature that often characterizes a challenger's approach, particularly during the stretch drive. Instead, Reagan is leaving the "battling" stance to the President. He wants very much to be perceived as a leader who doesn't stoop to political alley fighting. And he's willing to forgo any advantage the President may gain by "putting it to" him -- counting on the voters to fault Mr. Carter for being "strident," "abrasive," and for taking the low road.
The Reagan presidential stance may well pay off. But, Baker was asked, what if Reagan begins to lose his lead and it appears that the President is moving out front? "Well," said Baker, "we'll be watching the figures." He implied that , if such a shift in the campaign came about, Reagan would then accept a TV encounter with Carter. "But," one reporter asked, "if Carter gets ahead, isn't he very likelyto suddenly get very occupied with, say, international affairs -- and become 'too busy' to debate? Why would Carter be willing to debate if he gains a decided edge?" Mr. Baker's answer was simply, "Well, it's up to Carter. We told him what we would do."
So maybe Mr. Reagan does hold the advantageous high- ground position and can well afford to be presidential. But this is just the beginning of the second half of the campaign. How many times football teams have come in after half time and tried to "sit on their leads" only to be overtaken by an attacking, risk-taking opponent.