President Carter's first target is John Anderson. Ronald Reagan comes later. A key political adviser to Mr. Carter discloses that the President now feels he has two opponents, not one, in the fall -- and that he must deal with both.
"Anderson is running against Carter," this informant says."He's attacking the President -- his performance and record. He certainly isn't running against Reagan. Thus, he really is our opponent -- someone we must deal with."
Mr. Carter's "Anderson strategy" includes these components:
1. Mr. Carter will under no circumstances debate with the Illinois congressman, either one-on-one or including Governor Reagan.
The President's position is that if he opened up the debate to a third candidate he would also have to allow other presidential candidates to be included. "We would have to hire a hall," this source says. "It would be a mess."
It was also learned that Mr. Carter was ruling out a debate with Mr. Anderson simply because he doesn't want to give this opponent the opportunity to build himself up "with all that TV exposure."
2. Carter backers are seeing to it that Mr. Anderson doesn't get on any state ballot unless he follows every rule to the letter. "We'll take legal action," said one, "if Anderson doesn't do everything the law says he must do."
3. The President will be saving most of his rhetoric for Mr. Reagan. But his comments about Mr. Anderson will be directed toward pointing up what Mr. Carter and his political aides see as major contradictions between Congressman Anderson's record and many of his current positions.
"Exposure will kill Anderson," a Carter adviser says. "The more people hear about his real positions on issues, the less likely they are to vote for him in the fall.
"The liberals who now see Anderson as a great hope will be taking an entirely different view of him by election time -- and long before that."
While they plot strategy, the President's political camp is also taking great satisfaction with the results of Tuesday's primaries.
Impressive victories in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Idaho -- plus an apparent victory in Nevada -- have put Mr. Carter about 32 delegates short of the 1,666 he needs to win the nomination, according to a United Press International tally.
One delegate counter in Carter campaign headquarters here thinks that by the end of the primary period (on June 3) the President will have 2,000 delegates "at the minimum."
The Carter people estimate that the President and his intraparty challenger Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will come close to an even split in the big primaries in Ohio, New Jersey, and California.
Democratic national chairman John White says: "From what I hear, Carter is a little ahead in Ohio; it's about even in New Jersey, and Kennedy may have a slight edge in California."