Washington — A rather lackluster presidential race now is building to high drama: A one-to-one shootout, almost on the eve of the election, which could decide the outcome.
The great debate of 1980 was put together only after each side finally decided it was in its self-interest to participate.
For President Carter, the debate presents an opportunity to overtake a challenger who continues to hold a sizable edge in the state- by-state electoral vote predictions.
For Ronald Reagan, the debate is a means of stopping the momentum that has been running in the President's direction in the last couple of weeks.
Furthermore, Reagan aides see a successful performance at the debate, to be held in Cleveland Oct. 28, as a means of offsetting what they think will be the President's last- minute incumbency advantage.
"There are a lot of undecided voters out there," a Reagan strategist told the Monitor Oct. 18. "And an incumbent president is very likely to pick up the lion's share of that vote during the final days unless we do something about it."
Actually, polling by both sides has concluded that the race is extremely close, with Carter within a few percentage points of Reagan on a popular-vote basis.
Furthermore, both candidates see the President's recent upsurge as putting the outcome of several big electoral vote states in doubt -- states that if captured by the President could quickly erode Reagan's present electoral vote lead.
As one veteran political observer puts it:
"The fact that both men are so anxious about the outcome that they are willing to debate is a good measure of how close this contest is."
Actually, the Reagan people insist that Carter's recent climb in the polls, which narrowed the gap considerably, now has been stopped. "We've stabilized the situation," a top Reagan associate says. "We're back on track again."
But the Reagan forces are not so comfortable about their "stability" that they will forgo the debate. One aide conceded that the Reagan team had been sitting on its lead.
"We've been playing conservative football," this aide said. "Three line plays and a cloud of dust. We thought we could win that way. We found out that we must take some risk."
Both sides naturally expect to win the debate. Reagan sees this encounter as a means of nailing the President on his record -- particularly on his dealing with the economy. Carter hopes to use the debate to underscore what he feels is the most important issue -- that he is more likely to maintain peace.