Moscow — Privately, Soviet officials shrug when asked if they prefer Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan in the US elections. But eventually they usually give the same answer: Carter.
"Better the devil you know than the one you don't," is the way one official summed it up to this correspondent -- with a marked lack of enthusiasm for either man.
Grudging as it is, this kind of attitude -- also reported by Western diplomats here in private contacts -- is a switch from nine solid months of intense and sometimes emotional condemnation of the President in the Soviet news media.
It reflects the view that Mr. Carter at least intends to ask the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty, which Moscow regards as a vital symbol of Soviet nuclear equality with the United States and as a brake on another American spurt of arms building.
Ronald Reagan says he is opposed to SALT II and argues for US military superiority -- a concept that is anathema to a Kremlin that constantly proclaims that Washington can never again gain a military edge on the Soviet Union.
The private Soviet switch also comes as the Soviet press maintains a steady drumbeat of criticism against the President and insists the American voter has lapsed into pessimism and indifference. Newspapers routinely claim the campaign is being fought in an atmosphere of "military hysteria" aimed at the Soviets.
And the Soviets are thought to know full well that, no matter who is elected Nov. 4, detente is likely to stay in the deep freeze for many months to come.
It is difficult for Soviet commentators to come to grips with the cacophony of any US election battle, so totally different from the rigid control and secret-decisionmaking enforced by the Soviet Communist Party at home. This year the Soviet press is as unsure as many Americans themselves apparently are.
When Mr. Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games and proclaimed the grain embargo after the Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan, when he tried the vain effort to rescue the US hostages in Tehran, when he stood firm on more NATO arms in Europe, the Kremlin orchestrated virulent propaganda attacks against him.
Some Moscow commentators even reacted to the Iran rescue attempt by calling it an "'insane' risk of all-out war."
After the Republican convention nominated Mr. Reagan, some Soviet officials were heard to say, "Well, Nixon was a Republican, too, and with him we had detente. . . ."
The Soviet press attacked the GOP platform, but the Literary Gazette July 23 and Izvestia July 26 both appeared to argue that Mr. Reagan might well moderate once in office.
Even before the Democratic convention, Moscow had written off Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a lost cause for this year at least. After the convention, Moscow blasted Mr. Carter for losing prestige and support, and for trying to "frighten" voters by calling Mr. Reagan an "extremist."
On all foreign policy fronts, the Kremlin still blames Mr. Carter's determination to increase US armed readiness as the main refrigerator of detente. But privately, Soviet officials are plainly disenchanted with Mr. Reagan, and they don't take Rep. John Anderson seriously as a candidate in his own right.
Mr. Anderson is viewed rather as an expression of voter unhappiness with the two main candidates.
In an analysis of the campaign Oct. 3, Pravda's New York correspondent cited US observers as remarking on voter pessimism and disillusion. Polls showed more and more voters opposed to one or two of the candidates, he said, rather than being solidly for one.
Despite inflation, unemployment, and disillusion, a Reagan victory was "by no means guaranteed," Pravda wrote. He was trying to be more moderate but remains conservative at heart. The weekly New Times magazine has headlined a Reagan profile: "The man of simple answers."
No Soviet official accepts the concept that the Soviets' own behavior has helped push US public opinion to the right.