Washington — As political observers here see it, the impact of the Oct. 28 presidential debate on voters is likely to be the final one since so little time remains before the election.
"Never before have we had a presidential debate so late in the campaign," one political analyst points out. "If either is perceived to be the loser, there just won't be time for him to recover."
Four years ago, in his second debate of three with Jimmy Carter (in mid-October), President Ford made some misstatements about Poland. To many listeners it sounded as though Mr. Ford thought that Poland was free from the hold of the Soviets.
It took several days before Ford issued a clarification of his views. But there was ample time, the polls showed, for Ford to recover, at least partly, from his gaffe. He soon started to move upward again the polls -- after a decline that was tied in with his mistake.
But this election year the only Carter-Reagan one-on-one debate will be hardly over and the critics hardly finished with their assessments before Americans will head to the polls.
Mr. Carter goes into the debate with a distinct advantage: He is President of the United States. This office of itself carries public respect which may provide Carter with an edge, at least before the questioning begins.
But Mr. Reagan has the advantage of flexibility which comes to a challenger of anyone who is holding office.
In 1960 Richard Nixon told a Monitor reporter that he felt the main reason he "lost" the debates to John F. Kennedy -- something Mr. Nixon freely acknowledged -- was because Kennedy "could move around, while I had to stay fixed, tied to [ President] Eisenhower's and my record.
"I was a rigid target," Nixon said, "and Kennedy made the most of it."
Nixon pointed out at the time how his knowledge of highly classified information, and his inability to disclose it because of his position, made it impossible for him to rebut Kennedy's charge that there was a dangerous "missile gap," that the US was lagging behind the USSR.
Nixon said he had the information to turn back that charge but his hands were tied. He could not disclose the existence of certain US missile developments and progress that he believed would have allowed him to win that argument.
Later when Kennedy became president (and only a few weeks after he took office) his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, acknowledged that there was no such missile gap.
Appearances will inevitably play a role in the public's perception of the debate -- although they may not be too important in the outcone. Ronald Reagan's physical size advantage and his athletic build may be a help to him, particularly if he seems to tower over Carter.
If Reagan looks particularly old in contrast to Carter, this could work against the challenger.Up to now Reagan's campaign vigor and youngish appearance have tended to destroy the so-called "age issue."
Platform style will be another factor, Reagan the actor will be the finished performer. Even Carter spokesman Robert Strauss acknowledges that Reagan will win points for his speaking ability.
In contrast, Carter, with an awesome ability to remember details and a proved skill in handling tough questions with intelligence and aplumb, may turn out to look better on substance than his opponent.