Reagan doldrums and Carter lag may spur both into debate option

Beware the ides of October, some of Ronald Reagan's closest strategists had warned as long as Labor Day. The Republican's campaign could stall in mid-October, they said, and he could be vulnerable to a Carter coup -- such as a hostage breakthrough, or even the Democrat's refusal to debate. The Carter camp likewise claimed the Republican would need a debate-lift later.

So the surge of renewed interest in a presidential debate has arrived as predicted.

In bold political terms, Mr. Carter's pressing, and Mr. Reagan's reweighing, a two-man debate suggests: (1) Carter is still behind; (2) Reagan may soon be behind; and (3) oddman-out John Anderson is hopelessly behind in the White House race.

Events have been working in Carter's favor the past week. The race in key states has drawn tighter. The Republican was weakened by warmonger taunts, especially among women. But, given the Reagan electoral advantage in the other states, the President is not yet even.

Carter's wanting a debate is a tacit acknowledgmnt that he trails. "the fundamental strategic rule in presidential debating has not changed," says elections expert Austin Ranney. "An incumbent never debates unless he thinks he's behind and needs a debate."

However, Carter's agitating for a debate serves another purpose, his strategists acknowledge. It is another way to press and crowd the Republican into a defensive stance.

What the Carter campaign most wants is to reduce the election to "a choice between two men." They think they can win in that comparison. And a two-man presidential debate would set up the comparison starkly and with ease.

The traditional risk to an incumbent in debating is to give the challenger an equal footing or stature, political analysts say. Carter, they add, already had sacrificed some of his own "presidentiality" with his racism and warmongering charges against Reagan.

But the Carter staff hopes "to stir the pot" with the debate challenge. At this writing, the Reagan campaign was still weighing the offer - with the League of Women Voters expected to decertify Mr. Anderson as a "qualified candidate" -- against an alternative plan to stage a Reagan nationwide TV address.

Poll standings ride with emotional waves, Republican and Democratic strategists agree. Carter is still trying to generate his winning wave. The debate-reluctant Reagan hopes to ride what is left of his wave to coast to Nov. 4 still ahead.

The late-October timing of any debate would be unique.

"We've never had a one-to-one debate this late in a campaign," says Mr. Ramsey. "Probably more people have firmly decided on candidates now than at the time of the first Carter-Ford or Nixon-Kennedy debates -- and the the first debates are the critical ones.

"However, given the high level of undecided voters in this election, a debate even now could make a substantial difference in the outcome."

Poll standings just before and after previous debates showed only a slight change in overall candidate support of a point or two. "But this doesn't tell you how much support is firmed up by a debate," Ranney says.

"In a close election like this one, 1 or 2 percent could be crucial."

Another Carter goal is to spark more voter interest -- and turnout -- in the election. Raising voter turnout from a low 51 or 52 percent to 54, 55, or 56 percent would definitely work to the Democrat's advantage.

A debate tempts many Reagan staffers because it could enable him to "blunt Carter's success at selling the idea Reagan would rush the nation into war."

"Reagan has to show himself a nice, reasonable guy rather than a racist warmonger," Ranney says. "Carter would be spouting facts and figures to show how ignorant Reagan is."

For Anderson, just as inclusion in the league's first Baltimore debate with Reagan lent his national unity campaign stature, so the league's anticipated demotion of his candidacy would be felt as a bitter slight.

On the surface, Carter appears vindicated in refusing to share the debate platform with the independent-Republican, whose national poll standings have been cut by one-third to one-half in the latest samplings.

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