Washington — Both contestants handled themselves well and the outcome was not decisive in terms of turning the election around. Therefore, the race probably remains about where it was: extremely close with Ronald Reagan very likely hanging on to his electoral-vote edge.
This is the early consensus of political observers of the Great Debate.
There appears to be at least a slight weight of opinion on the side of the conclusion that President Carter may have won on points -- by keeping Ronald Reagan so much on the defensive on the war and peace issue.
Mr. Reagan kept having to explain that he would not be "dangerous" in terms of how he would deal with a global crisis where the use of US military forces would be an option.
On the other hand, the political experts see Reagan gaining credibility as a potential president by showing again and again, through his good-humored, reasonable answers and his poise that he was not, indeed, the kind of person who would be belligerent and hasty to move to military confrontation.
The expectation in the Carter camp, during the weeks when the Carter people pushed hard for this one-on-one encounter, was this: that in debate the President would convincingly show that Reagan was a shallow thinker -- a candidate who would not have the intelligence tocope with the terribly complex issues facing a chief executive.
This expectation was not borne out in the results. As observers here see it, Mr. Carter may have been better on details, but Mr. Reagan showed equal grasp of the issues posed by the questioners.
Thus, these observers are saying, Carter failed in what he may have had to accomplish to move the momentum clearly in his direction and gain the victory next Tuesday: He was not able to score a needed knockout of his opponent.
Meanwhile, early returns of viewer opinion -- the decision that really counts -- indicated Reagan was doing better than the relative standoff which critics were for the most part rating the encounter.
An ABC telephone call-in, with 700,000 viewers participating, showed that some 67 percent of the callers thought Reagan had "won" the debate. [The network admitted it was not a controlled sampling, that repeat calls were possible by the same person, and that there were problems with jammed phone lines.]
Some spot checks with voters around the United States showed that pro-Reagan people tended to say they thought Reagan won and pro-Carter people tended to call the debate for the President.
But in the wake of the intensely interesting TV encounter -- markedby many pointed jabs, particularly from Carter, but with no real fireworks or major gaffes -- the big question remained: How many undecided voters will be influenced to vote, one way or the other, by what they heard and saw in the debate?
Both candidates were really addressing this big bloc of "undecideds" -- estimated at upward of 10 percent ofthe electorate and perceived to be much bigger when the "waverers" are included.
Carter sought to make the point that there was a distinct difference between the parties, particularly on issues pertaining to the problems of minorities andthe disadvantaged.
His pitch was, indeed, a call to liberal Democrats, many of whom indicate they will vote for independent John Anderson or not vote at all, to comehome to the party and vote for him.
Reagan was courting independents and Democrats ashe sought to underscore, particularly in his concluding statement, that the lot of all Americans had worsened under Carter and that his approach, based on leaning less on government and more on the private sector, deserved a try.