Washington — If Jimmy Carter is looking for an "October surprise" to deflate Ronald Reagan's lead, he won't likely find it in a John Anderson pullout. Like Mr. Carter's primary campaign nemesis, Edward Kennedy, who stayed in the race even after the Carter camp and the news media had proclaimed him beaten, Mr. Anderson appears to be going through some soul- searching, lowering of expectations, and scaling-down of costs to stay the course.
This week would appear to be the most likely point for such an Anderson withdrawal, many observers believe.
Anderson has failed for the third straight time -- twice in the primaries and again Sept. 21 in Baltimore -- to gain ground after debating Mr. Reagan. He has money problems. Despite a Federal Election Commission advisory ruling the bank loans to the independent candidate would be legal bankers have balked at big-ticket credit. He has had to scale down commercial loan requests and last week had to ask his 200,000-plus grass-roots givers for small loans.
Another reason give for an Anderson pullout is that his campaign is "psychologically based" rather than sustained by a party structure. Thus rooted , the Anderson zeal for a new American political vision could fall on the rocks of practical politics, it is reasoned, and the candidate could simply change his mind rather than run up heavy debts.
But what is apparently happening as the final month gets under way, is that the Anderson campaign is taking on the nature of a low-cost crusade as Senator Kennedy's had in the primaries -- not a winning hand, but with enough cards to help influence the outcome.
"The intent is to stay in until the end," says Roger Craver, and Anderson fund-raiser (and Kennedy's in the primaries)."There is enough money to keep Anderson and Lucey campaigning until the election.
"They can get through without undue stress or inordinate debt," Mr. Craver says. "They are figuring on a $600,000 to $1 million debt [without the major loans], which is manageable."
"Anderson's candidacy has a psychological base that goes well beyond the candidate himself," Craver says. "It includes the people who have given him money and support. He feels strongly about not betraying their trust. This is a mission of purpose for Anderson and them, one that won't go away with this election."
The chance of a pullout is "nonexistent," says an Anderson spokesman."The key thing, of course, is Anderson's own attitude. He's so angry with Carter these days, the last thing he would do is drop out."
Nonetheless, it is a rule in politics as well as in business to deny quitting until the last possible moment.
Such an event would help Carter, most observers agree.
"In the places it counts -- the big states outside the South -- Anderson takes two votes from Carter to one for Reagan," says Austin Ranney, political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. "If Anderson's out, it would bring states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New York back into Carter's column."
"If Carter and Reagan are within two to three points, if Anderson's in, he would guarantee Reagan's win," Mr. Ranney says. "If he's out, it would make the election closer."
Even if Anderson were to withdraw, he would have enough residual impact to influence the election, says West Coast pollster Mervin Field.
"You would still have 2, 3, 4, percent Anderson bitter-ender votes that wouldn't pull out even if Anderson did," Mr. Field says.
"But he's locked in," Field asserts. He still needs the 5 percent [in federal funds that goes to candidates gaining 5 percent or more of the November vote] to pay his other debts."
The conventional wisdom holds that Anderson's support will wane in the final days of the campaign. But Field suggests the opposite could happen.
"People aren't voting today," he says. "A decision-character takes over the week or two before the election, a signal goes across the country to pay attention. An acerbating look at Carter, then an appalling look at Reagan could cause a resurgence for Anderson."