Washington — The long election year now comes down to the final days.Its outcome is tied closely to that of Tuesday's debate and on whether the hostages are released. In the Reagan camp there is gloom over what is seen there as the almost certain return of the hostages by election day.
One top Reagan aide said, "I think that will be the day the hostages will get out."
In the Carter camp the word is "caution." A key Carter aide, when asked whether the hostages would be released before the election, said: "Don't even speculate about. If I had to call it today, I'd say it isn't going to happen."
This comment only echoes what President Carter and Vice-President Walter Mondale are saying about the hostages -- that there have been no negotiations and that it would be a mistake to let hopes rise too high.
Yet the fact is that in high Carter administration circles there is an expectation that the hostages could be released within days, together with a full appreciation that this event alone might nudge the election outcome toward the President.
One political adviser of the President says of the possible political implications, "We can't give too much away to Iran -- or this issue could be turned against us."
In Ronald Reagan's camp the hostage issue now is being labeled "too hot to handle." That is, Mr. Reagan is being advised to say nothing, lest his words be interpreted as being likely to make the hostage release more difficult.
But what Reagan would like to say -- at which former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger hinted strongly during a breakfast with reporters the other day -- is that the reason Iran wants to move now on the hostages is that the country feels it can get a better deal with Carter than with him.
Former Iranian Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotzbadeh has admitted that it would be better to deal with Carter than Reagan.
Reagan would like to assert that no foreign country, particularly Iran, should be given the privilege of meddling in a US election.
But Reagan is being counseled to hold his fire on the issue now and at the debate on Tuesday.
However, Reagan advisers see the possibility that the release of the hostages , should it come about, could backfire against the President if the voters see the event as a cynical ploy pulled off by the Carter administration in an effort to win re-election.
The president is perceived as seeking to avoid such an accusation by his frequent comments aimed at indicating he is not putting any special pressure on Iran at this time to release the hostages.
Meanwhile, new national polls were showing Carter and Reagan in almost a dead heat in the projected overall vote. Reagan is still well out in front in the anticipated state-by-state electoral vote count.
But in the bid by both candidates for the "Big Mo," the momentum that could sweep either man into the Oval Office, the President seemed to have captured this advantage once again.
The hostages and the speculation about their early release places the focus in terms of domestic politics almost entirely on the President.
Thus, the hostage issue is overshadowing the debates, an event which for a short while tended to put public anticipation and the national spotlight on both candidates.
As a result, "winning" Tuesday's debate looms as even more important at this point to the challenger than the incumbent.
Reagan apparently now needs to be widely perceived as having gained the debating edge over Carter or he will leave the momentum with the President. With his hostage-issue advantage in the background, it appears that Carter will only have to come out even in the debate to leave the ball in his opponent's territory with only a relatively few moments left to play.