John Anderson, the last uncertainty

In politics, including the US variety, nothing is certain until the last vote is in and counted. The profile of US politics as it looks today can be radically different a month from now, or even a week from now.

But, having recognized the above it seems fairly clear by now that the first three months of 1980 have vastly simplified the pattern of US politics in this presidential year.

When the year opened the field seemed crowded with interesting, eager, and promising Republicans. There were Howard Baker of Tennessee, John Connally and George Bush of Texas, Philip Crane and John Anderson of Illinois -- and Ronald Reagan of California. There were fewer over on the Democratic side, but two of them, Jerry Brown of California and Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, gave some ground for anxiety to the Carter strategists at the White House in Washington. There seemed then to be plenty of uncertainties about the final outcome.

The pattern could hardly be more different today. If anything can be called certain in politics it is that the Republicans will nominate Ronald Reagan and the Democrats will renominate President Carter.

True, on the Republican side George Bush is still working away in hope of a surprise showing in Pennsylvania. Among Democrats Senator Kennedy is doing the same. Yet the Bush candidacy, once promising, has faded fast of recent weeks and seems about as finished as that of Jerry Brown among Democrats. (The California governor has in fact withdrawn. Mr. Bush probably should do the same.) Senator Kennedy has a determined thrust to his chin and may keep on trying to the end, yet only a political miracle could revive his campaign after the results from Wisconsin and Kansas and his poor showing in the polls.

Which means that there is only one serious uncertainty left -- John Anderson.

Probably the most curious thing about this campaign today is the way John Anderson, virtually unknown three months ago, has proved to be the most tenacious in the field of also-rans.

Three months ago he was lowest man in the polls, getting at best one or two percent of the votes. Yet he made a good showing in New Hampshire, getting nearly 10 percent of the vote, and stunned everyone including himself by very nearly winning in both Massachusetts and Vermont where he did get 30 percent.

In the recent primary in Wisconsin he did not do quite so well, slipping back to 28 percent against 40 percent for the front-runner, Ronald Reagan, and 31 percent for George Bush. But still, the man no one had ever heard of in January had stayed in the race and could still pull in 28 percent of the vote in a Republican primary in Wisconsin. Besides which he was the only person in the entire US political spectrum who had the extra option of running as an independent.

The others are all party regulars. Either they make it to the top in their own party or go home. But Mr. Anderson is a stubborn sort who is moved this year by a feeling that he has a duty to the American people to help elevate the tone of American politics. If he thinks he can do that by running as a third-party candidate -- he is the sort who would actually do it.

John Bayard Anderson is not an ordinary politician. He is deeply religious. He is a member of the Evangelical Free Church and was at one time a trustee of that church. His conscience has moved him from one side of the political spectrum to the other. He started out as right-wing Republican and has moved steadily over until he is probably about as far to the left as a man can go and still enjoy the confidence and support of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives. They elected him their chairman of the Republican conference in the House.

This is not a man who would be open to a political "deal." His conscience, not expediency, will decide whether he becomes an independent candidate and launches a third-party campaign. He is not going to get the Republican nomination, barring some wildly unforeseeable event which would upset all present calculations. But he may well run against both Reagan and Carter. And if he does run he will pull some votes away from both.

All of which keeps one element of uncertainty in the picture. If he runs, will he pull more votes from Mr. Carter or from Mr. Reagan? No one can be quite sure. Present indications are that a straight Carter-Reagan race would be extremely close. Hence an Anderson third party could decide the issue between the two leaders. But which would benefit -- Mr. Reagan or President Carter?

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