Washington — Two days before Sunday's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, John Glenn had settled on his strategy. He hoped, as one adviser put it, to find a chance to ''hit a home run'' against the front-runner, Walter Mondale.
If Mr. Glenn didn't get a clear opportunity, the plan called for him to ''create an incident'' that would allow him to make a forceful statement in the final hour of the debate.
As viewers of the three-hour marathon know, that's just what happened. Although some news reports said Glenn ''came uncorked'' as he ripped into Mr. Mondale's campaign promises, the Glenn offensive unfolded very much the way his advisers had described it to this reporter last Friday.
The strategy worked - at least, in part. Glenn's advisers wanted three things to emerge from the debate, which pitted the eight top Democratic contenders against one another on nationwide TV. They hoped it would:
First, show voters that this is primarily a two-man race between Glenn and Mondale. Second, depict Glenn as a moderate leader whose policies can be supported by a majority of the nation's voters. Third, give Glenn a chance to ''really shine'' as his advisers feel he does when he shows his indignation.
The success of the ''two-man race'' strategy was quickly apparent. Moments after the debate ended, the CBS-TV Sunday evening news focused most of its debate coverage on clips from the Glenn-Mondale clash. The following day, the New York Times showed only photos of Glenn and Mondale on Page 1. The other candidates had to settle for their photos deep inside the paper.
Glenn, however, wasn't the only candidate who could smile afterward. There were pluses for just about everyone.
Walter Mondale clearly had the most to lose. Polls show he has more than twice as much support among Democratic voters in New Hampshire as Glenn. His staff worried before the Sunday clash that even a minor slip might hurt badly. But most observers thought Mondale came out of the debate moderately well. And the same could be said for others.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the newcomer to the contest, was the great unknown. But he impressed even his opponents with his understanding of television and how to use it. Mr. Jackson was calm, but firm. Like other Southern black leaders before him, his knowledge of the Bible gave his responses on issues like abortion a deeper dimension than some of the other candidates displayed.
A Monitor analysis of the debate showed that Jackson held his own very well in getting his share of time - and more - in the debate. Jackson spoke for a total of 22 minutes, more than anyone else except Mondale, who led with 26.2 minutes. In a debate where it was often up to the candidate to seize the moderators' attention, Jackson spoke up 28 times, even more than the 26 times by Mondale.
Alan Cranston could also be pleased. His big issue is the nuclear freeze, and the first hour of the debate revolved on the issue. Moderator Ted Koppel even helped out by asking Cranston to define ''nuclear freeze'' for the audience.
Gary Hart also was seen gaining as he hammered at his theme of ''old'' vs. ''new,'' and disparaged
both front-runners as men who stood for the policies of the past rather than looking for fresh ideas.
Askew, who is looking for a strong Roman Catholic vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire,
strongly supported the White House decision to send an ambassador to the Vatican.
Ernest Hollings, an effective debater, gave the audience some of the catchy one-liners for which he is well known. ''The danger is not in the warhead, but in the heads of the leaders of the several nations,'' he intoned. Mr. Hollings wants to pick up the party's moderate mantle if Glenn falters.
George McGovern played the role of elder statesman. Some insiders with other campaigns feel he made a good impression when he attempted to direct the attacks of Glenn and others away from Mondale and toward the Republicans.
Interestingly, the amount of time seized by each candidate in the debate was somewhat reflective of their current standings in the race. As already noted, front-runner Mondale spoke for just over 26 minutes.
Jackson was second with 22 minutes, Glenn third with 18.5 minutes. Cranston was fourth with 16.9 minutes, Hart fifth with 15.1 minutes.
There were long periods when some of the other candidates were seldom heard from. Hollings spoke for a total of 15 minutes, McGovern 13.2 minutes, and Askew 12.5 minutes. Mr. Askew's campaign manager worried before the debate that if the contest was not carefully controlled, the front-runners
might get more than their share of time, which is just what
A few final points:
Although Mondale avoided any gaffes, the debate is expected to lift other, less known candidates in the polls. Mondale's wide lead should shrink.
Candidates had mixed feelings about the free-style debate, especially the second half of the segment hosted by TV personality Phil Donahue. Mr. Donahue started by badgering the candidates for quick, one-word answers, but Glenn, Mondale, Jackson, and Hart complained. After that, the pace slowed a bit.
The polls show that one of Askew's problems is name recognition. This debate was no different. When PBS-TV first displayed his name, it was misspelled ''Ruben'' instead of ''Reubin.'' Later, Donahue called him ''Agnew,'' a reference to the former vice-president, Spiro.