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Challenger Reagan

August 27, 1984



If motivation is the measure, both major American party conventions have now ended with success. The President has chosen to lead the Republicans aggressively into the fray. The Republicans exited their convention revved up to the hilt.

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The result is a more sharply drawn 1984 contest. Certainly the challenge Mr. Reagan laid down to the Democrats in accepting his nomination was one to encourage the Democrats to respond with zest.

It was no Rose Garden speech. It was combative. It stuck by the very conservative goals of the party platform. It showed no sign the President intended to shift to the center or to sit on his very comfortable lead.

The President will run on his record. He's proud of it. Yet he has assumed the stance of challenger, not incumbent. He blamed the Democratic Congress for the modern record of deficits, inflation, and the rise in government spending. He accused the previous Democratic administration of leading the country toward despair - deeper farm debt, higher taxes, greater poverty, ''teen-age drug use, out-of-wedlock births, and crime.''

Mr. Reagan has chosen to lead his party against the Carter-Mondale record of the past, which offers a contrast with his own administration, instead of the untested Mondale-Ferraro ticket of the present.

Like his party's speakers all week in Dallas before him, he distinguished ''between two different visions of the future, the fundamentally different ways of governing - their government of pessimism, fear, and limits ... or ours of hope, confidence, and growth.''

An anticipated shift to the center did not really occur in Dallas last week. The speakers, acknowledging the GOP's minority-party status, beckoned disaffected Democrats to join them.

But on all critical issues of taxes, military buildup, social programs, church and state, there was no compromising the positions of the platform - a platform that conforms closely to the career-long beliefs of standard-bearer Ronald Reagan.

There was a good tactical reason for taking the initiative. Gary Hart knows what it is. Walter Mondale's aggressive assault on Mr. Hart during the primaries grounded Hart's meteoric momentum. Mr. Mondale showed a surprising feisty streak. And Geraldine Ferraro is no slouch in carrying a fight herself.

But there are other reasons the Reagan team has come out fighting. Its candidate, often folksy, laid back, and kidding, also relishes the attack. His career has been as a crusader. His second term as President is being presented as the summation of that crusading career.

Reagan, significantly, has offered no new programs, no tax plans to reduce the deficit, no promises of new departures in a second administration. This makes it harder for Mondale to draw him into a debate about two hypothetical administrations; in such a comparison of plans, rather than achievements, the Mondale position would be more nearly equal.

There is a risk for the public in a combative campaign. Facts and the truth can take a beating. Extreme positions can be defended too assiduously.

Already troubling is the intrusion of the church-state issue. The GOP platform's support, and Reagan's, for tuition tax credits (which would largely aid church-related schools), an abortion amendment, and school prayer can only heighten passions on topics that need more deliberate discussion.

President Reagan last week seemed to back the position of Roman Catholic clergy who argue that politicians cannot erect a line between private convictions and official decisions. Neither the invocation nor the benediction for the President's acceptance speech showed the customary regard for a nonpartisan religious presence on such occasions.

Bipartisanship in foreign affairs also took considerable abuse in Dallas, most notably as the Democrats were blamed for engaging America in its major foreign wars in this century.

A sharply drawn contest can have its benefits: It rallies both sides quickly, whets public interest. For the Democrats, it increases the likelihood of presidential and vice-presidential debates, which they need to catch the Republicans.

Reagan could possibly have coasted to a second term. He has chosen instead a riskier course: to attempt to win it.