Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter are leading as the presidential election year opens. This is what most Washington watches would have expected a year ago. But it proves little about what the voters will do at the polls ten months from now.
Each of the two leaders has a liability which helps to make US politics uncertain, hence more interesting, this time around.
Mr. Carter's present lead among Democrats is built heavily, some would say almost entirely, on his performance, so far, in the Iranian affair. As this is written the hostages are still alive and the US is not at war. The combination is politically popular. It has pulled Mr. Carter's ratings up from the cellar and given him back a leading position over his main rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Senator Edward Kennedy.
But this advantage could be blown away overnight if harm should come to the hostages, or the US get sucked into even a small war, let alone a big one.
And what happens to Mr. Carter's place in popular opinion if the Iranian crisis simply disappears some day? It has been his biggest asset. It has given him a stage and a leading role. Other presidential candidates have been pushed into the obscurity of the wings while Mr. Carter played center stage. Even if he comes through this affair unscathed -- what does he do next? It's hard act to follow.
Over among the Republicans Ronald Reagan seems to be so far ahead of his rivals that one wonders why the others keep on trying. But Mr. Reagan will be 69 on Feb. 6. That means that every practical politician in his party will be watching him intently all the spring to be sure that he is really up to the physical effort of compaigning.
It is reasonable to think that the Republican nominee will be running against either President Carter or Senator Kennedy. conceivably some other Democrat might appear from off stage between now and the conventions in high summer. But the reasonable expectation is that either Mr. Carter will hold his present lead, and win the nomination, or be overtaken by the Senator from Massachusetts.
Mr. Carter is 56. Senator Kennedy will be 48 on Feb. 22. The campaign will be strenuous. The professional politicians of the Republican party recognize that they have a serious chance of winning the White House this year, if they pick the best candidate for campaigning. They would like to win the White House. But does Mr. Reagan have the physical stamina and the policy posture which can draw independent and Democratic votes away from either Mr. Carter or Senator Kennedy?
That question does not bother the average Republican voter. But it does bother the county chairmen and ward captains who care more about winning than about the ideological purity of the candidate. Why not go for a winner when the chances of winning are respectable?
They are respectable as the political year opens. Mr. Carter's presidency in the two years before the Iranian crisis was certainly lackluster. He had come to be perceived widely as weak and indecisive. The Republicans will do their best to revive that pre-Iran image of Mr. Carter. The effort has already begun. Once the crisis is over the Republicans will grind it out by the ton.
If Mr. Carter is nominated, he may well win, but his victory is not inevitable. And, thanks to Mr. Carter's own recovery, and early campaign mistakes by Senator Kennedy, and vigorously revived memories of Chappaquiddick, Senator Kennedy is not inevitable -- either for the Democratic nomination or, if nominated, in the elections.
So what should the Republicans do to make the most of their opportunity?
George Herbert Walker Bush, age 56, bona fide World War II hero (Distinguished Flying Cross), former US Ambassador, both at the UN and in Peking , former director of the CIA, former member of Congress, from Connecticut by way of Texas, is the Republican runner up. He would make an attractive alternate to , or running mate for Mr. Reagan.
In third place is Howard Henry Baker Jr., also World War II Navy flyer, son-in-law of prestigious former Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen, Senator, since 1966 from Tennessee. He is also a possible alternate or running mate.
There are other Republicans -- principally John Connally of Texas and John Anderson of Illinois -- who might gain in visibility before the Republican convention, but have not yet approached Reagan, Bush, and Baker in straw votes and polls. Republican voters seem at this stage to prefer Reagan. The party "pros" incline towards Bush or Baker as more likely to be able to attract independent and Democratic votes.
Which means that, as of January, 1980, the next President of the USA seems likely to be named Carter, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush or Baker. Any one of the fve seems to have a serious chance.