Washington — Ronald Reagan is benefiting from the frustrations of a president who is lagging in the polls. New polls, showing the Carter comeback effort had cooled off recently, are being interpreted by political observers here as a sign that the strident Carter rhetoric has not paid off.
Further, checks with political leaders indicate that Mr. Carter's effort to be provocative and open up a national debate with Mr. Reagan on war and peace and civil-rights issues has, up to now, been nonproductive.
THis Carter approach, key democrats say:
* Is coming through in the eyes of many voters as mean-spirited and overly combative and this is particularly damaging to him among voters who have consistently admired what they thought was a rather sweet, decent, and highly principled Carter.
* Seems to have won for Reagan, with his relatively soft, aggrieved replies, more sympathy than criticism.
One administration aide told the Monitor Oct. 8 that Carter's hard-edged rhetoric against Reagan "is the way the President is expressing his frustrations over his inability to get the voters to see the vast differences between himselp and Reagan -- on war and peace, on social issues, and generally on what philosophy is best for bringing the nation forward."
"This hard slugging is also the way it's done in Georgia," this informat said. "But it doesnt play so well against a California actor who responds, not in king or with an answer, but by showing sadness over the alleged harshness of the Carter remark." election might divide the nation on racial, religious, and regional lines.
Says the President's campaign chairman, Robert Strauss: "Once again, Governor Reagan has taken exception to the language used by President Carter rather than address the specific issues which have been raised. This should be a campaign of issues. We're going to try to see that it becomes one."
National Democratic Party chairman John White, meanwhile, defended the President'st rhetoric but indicated that it was not from a "script" provided by Carter advisers. He said this was a "free form" President who was writing his own script.
At various times in the past several weeks, Carter has hinted that Reagan was a racist, someone who would likely lead the United States into war, and who, if elected, might divide the nation -- "black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban. . . ."
Mr. White, talking with reporters over breakfast, maintained that Reagan "has been getting away with murder."
"Reagan," he said, "is being kept in a cocoon" and all the President is trying to do is "smoke him out."
White said the President will not modify his approach and contended that, despite asssessments to the contrary, the polls a couple of weeks from now will show that Carter really has been gaining by this tactic -- that it is helping to bring Democrats away from Reagan and John Anderson and back to him.
But the prevailing mod in the Carter camp is despondencey. the feeling is that the President's campaign is bogging down and that the Carter effort to stir up a dialogue wiht Reagan may be counterproductive.