Washington — With a presidential election as tightly contested as this one, Tuesday's debate may well influence a couple of hundred electoral votes, and as a result, determine the next occupant of the Oval Office.
The apparent closeness of the two leading candidates is underscored by a new CBS/New York Times poll which shows President Carter out in front of his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan.
This new poll gives Carter 39 percent, Reagan 38 percent, and Anderson 9 percent, with 13 percent undecided. But because of the survey's margin of error , the results indicate a virtual dead heat between the two men in their race for the White House.
The candidate's strategists, together with pollsters Pat Caddell (for Carter) and Robert teeter (for Reagan), stress that undecided voters -- estimated to be as high as one-third of the potential electorate -- will be the vote pool from which significant changes and even a wider victory margin could come.
Mr. Teeter, talking to reporters over lunch Oct. 22, said that while he didn't expect it, "There could be a landslide."
Predictably, Teeter believes his candidate is better positioned to take advantage of a debate-occasioned shift in voter support. And just as predictably, the Carter camp sees their man as best positioned to take advan tage of any change.
Teeter says that "only a 2 or 3 percent shift" could bring about "significant changes in the election result." The Carter source, talking for nonattribution, agreed.
Thus, with only a few days before the election, both camps seem to agree that the debate or some other major event -- such as the release of the US hostages in Iran, should it come about -- could bring about a voter shift that would benefit a candidate enough to elect him and possibly provide him with a comfortable cushion of support.
Beyond that there are what polisters call "waverers," particularly among Carter and Anderson supporters, whose support for their current candidate is shaky enough to be affected by coming events, such as the debate.
Teeter was asked how much support each candidate had that would, in his estimation, not be responsive to change in the days before the election.
"The hard-core base for reagan," he said, "is 170 to 180 delegates. And for Carter I think his base is from 120 to 150."
A Carter aide, understandably, thought the Teeter estimate for Reagan was too high and for the President too low. But he said he thought the estimates were "in the ballpark."
Thus political observers now see the race as "tight" and likely to remain so unless there are last-minute developments that could bring about significant shifts in the results.
Moreover, observers see the race as reflective mainly of an electorate which up to now has not shown much enthusiasm about any of the candidates.As a result it is subject to decided changes if the voters become emotionally involved during the ramaining days of the campaign.
But in this city of political experts there appear to be as many pundits who see Reagan the winner as those who are forecasting a Carter victory.
The prevailing view among such observers is that the Tuesday debate could prove of major importance. They believe that if the public perceives one candidate as the winner and the other as the loser, this could have a decisive impact on the outcome of the election.