President Carter's campaign strategy now is broken down into two parts: He will leap into the hustings once the hostages are released. But whether he then will debate is another question.
Sources close to Mr. Carter say a Carter-Kennedy debate is unlikely. The reasons are these:
* Why, these sources argue, should an incumbent president agree to share the national spotlight with a challenger if that president is so far in front that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose in such an encounter.
* Further, these sources add, why should a president who is leading in the polls over his challenger take the chance of committing some blunder (like Richard Nixon's poor TV makeup, or Gerald Ford's words, which were widely interpreted as an apparent perception of a free Poland) that might severely damage his campaign or turn the election completely around.
* To the charge made by Mr. Carter's critics that he is reluctant to debate because he wishes to avoid public discussion of vital issues, thus damaging the democratic process, the Carter rejoinder is this:
The presidential record of three years is there for all to see and debate, and he is having frequent communications with the public on where he stands.
* To the argument that Mr. Carter earlier challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to debate (which the latter accepted) and hence has an obligation to debate now, the President's position is described thusly:
Mr. Carter earlier believed that it was to his advantage to debate (when he was far behind Mr. Kennedy in the polls). Now he assumes a stance that he detailed at his Feb. 13 press conference: "Whether or not, or when, a debate would be appropriate would have to be decided in the future when I assess the invitation received and the circumstances prevailing then."
This means, these White House sources say, that if after the hostages are released Senator Kennedy is still well behind in the polls, this will be an "important circumstance" -- which will persuade Mr. Carter not to debate.
Further, the President does not feel he has an obligation to Senator Kennedy to debate him.
"It's not the same thing as when Kennedy accepted Carter's challenge," one Carter aide said. "Kennedy accepted Carter's challenge," one Carter aide said. "Kennedy had much to gain by debating even though he was ahead in the polls. It gives any challenger added prestge as well as national limelight to share the stage with the President -- even a Kennedy.
"Kennedy obviously felt he had more to gain than lose by debating -- he certainly wouldn't have accepted otherwise."
* When questioned about whether a "no debate" decision on Mr. Carter's part would be "unfair" to Senator Kennedy, these sources gave this answer: "Why should we be fair to Kennedy? We don't think Kennedy is being all that fair to us these days."
* Finally, when asked whether the President's current attitude toward debate is shaped, at least in part, by an anxiety that he might not measure up to Senator Kennedy, these Carter advocates bristle.
They assert that the President is formidable in debate -- and that this was displayed in his debates with Gerald Ford.
They say that the President would love to stand toe to toe with Senator Kennedy and that Mr. Carter is confident he could best the senator.
However, these sources again point out that Mr. Carter, unless he gets behind Mr. Kennedy or the race gets close, isn't likely to debate the Massachusetts senator -- simply because the risks outweigh the potential advantages.