Washington — Following the presidential debate, the prevalent perception among politicians and the press in Washington is that Ronald Reagan will be the likely winner when ballots are tallied Nov. 4.
But this assessment comes with a couple of caveats. Should the 52 American hostages languishing in Iran be released before Tuesday, this might give President Carter what he needs to win. Or should the President do something dramatic enough to rally voters to his side, that, too, could shift the outcome.
But barring such major events, Mr. Reagan now is perceived as the probable 40 th President of the United States.
This time four years ago, the political "cyrstal ball" was more clouded. Carter was seen as the favorite. But President Gerald Ford seemed to be coming up fast.
Now, political observers here are saying that Reagan is holding his substantial lead in electoral votes -- based mainly in states west of the Mississippi River -- and is doing well enough in the big Midwestern and Eastern industrial states to make him the decided favorite.
Predictably, both camps are saying they will win. Both say they won the debates. And both say they picked up momentum following the debate.
But among political observers, these are the prevailing views:
* Reagan, while gaining no better than a standoff in the debate in the eyes of critics and perhaps losing a bit on points in the eyes of forensic experts, was viewed as the winner by a majority of voters.
It seems that when a challenger is able to stand up well against a president, he gains with the voters even if he may not do better than achieve a tie.
Some new national polls show a narrow majority of respondents calling the debate for Reagan. One, by CBS, showed more Carter supporters saying that Reagan won than Reagan supporters who said they thought Carter won.
* Polls taken since the debate indicate that the undecideds are moving more to Reagan than to Carter.
* Also, there is evidence that support for Carter is softer -- that more voters who say they are for Carter won't vote than those who say they are for Reagan.
But even while giving the nod to Reagan right now, experts feel the race will be extremely close. In their view, the President as the incumbent will be able to focus enough attention on himself and what he is doing in running the country to narrow the contest.
However, it is Reagan's commanding electoral vote edge, together with his strong bids to take away some of the big, electoral vote states in the North that Carter captured last time, that cause observers to conclude he will come out ahead on Tuesday.
Reagan campaign officials concede that they might even lose the popular vote to Carter while winning the electoral votes and the election. "But we don't think that is going to happen," says Ed Meese, top adviser to Reagan.
The Reagan campaign estimates that its candidate's total electoral vote will be about 305, with 270 needed to win.
But the Carter camp also is optimistic about victory. The President has polls that show him on his way to victory and that his final, all-out campaign effort will win it.
Indeed, a president in the last days before an election has all sorts of ways to recapture the momentum. This could happen, observers agree. But as of now, president watchers here feel that it probably won't happen and that Reagan probably will win.