A cautious Kremlin is watching the US presidential campaign too -- and so far , the "Kremlin poll" looks like this: Jimmy Carter: Thumbs down. A "dangerous" and "unpredictable" President, unstable, reckless, inconsistent. The Kremlin would like him defeated in November.
Edward Kennedy: The Kremlin likes the Kennedy name and the Kennedy liberalism but has concluded sadly that he is not going to win -- and that he did not campaign strongly enough on liberal issues.
Ronald Reagan: Resignedly, the Kremlin is edging toward acceptance if Mr. Reagan wins. No longer does the Soviet press routinely condemn him as a reactionary, as it did four years ago. The Soviet press has briefly reported his string of primary victories so far, without comment.
John Anderson: Puzzlement. Who is he and what does he stand for? Third parties traditionally do poorly in the US -- can he be any different? The one good thing about him is that he has supported the SALT II treaty.
"In general," says one Western diplomatic source here, "the Soviets appear as confused by the US election campaign as many Americans apparently are, and they're waiting for the dust to settle."
The two most noticeable features of high- level reactions here are the condemnation, even contempt, for Mr. Carter, and the beginnings of a reluctant acceptance that Mr. Reagan might be the next president.
"Well, Reagan might not be so bad," said one Soviet official privately the other day. "He is a Republican, and we got on well with Richard Nixon." Soviet officials reject the view that Soviet arms programs, troops in Afghanistan, and other actions have pushed US public opinion to the right.
They say they feel that some of Mr. Reagan's more extreme anti-Soviet statements -- for instance, that he would hold Cuba hostage until Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan -- might just be campaign rhetoric.
What the Kremlin wants is consistency in Washington. It certainly does not like what Mr. Reagan says about the Soviet Union today, nor does it like the kind of conservative foreign policy experts advising him, from Richard Allen, a former Nixon administration adviser, to Harvard University Prof. Richard Pipes.
But the Kremlin now seems convinced that the current President's "unpredictability" is even worse.
In Soviet eyes, Mr. Carter started out publicly condemning the Soviets on human rights.In March 1977, he tried to change what had already almost been agreed on SALT at the Vladivostok summit between former President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Mr. Carter put forward a "deep cuts" proposal that the Kremlin flatly rejected. It took a year and a half to get the negotiations back on track. Mr. Carter refused to link progress on SALT to dissident trials in the summer of 1978 -- but then used "linkage" this year by holding up the SALT II treaty (signed in Vienna last summer) because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviets watched the President try to free the US hostages from Tehran for months. Just when they had concluded he was ineffectual, he launched the abortive rescue attempt. Now the Soviets eye the US naval task force off the Iranian coast, other moves in the Indian Ocean, and the boosting of US and NATO defense budgets, and they conclude that Mr. Carter is a hawk after all.
On national television's "Studio Nine" program May 31, Kremlin information chief Leonid Zamyatin accused Mr. Carter of "dangerous zigzags" on foreign policy in general.
One recurring charge is that the President plays politics with foreign policy all the time. After the failed Iranian rescue effort, the Soviet press accused him of being guided "by purely egoistic and narrow political considerations." He was prepared to "sacrifice" the lives of his fellow citizens "for his election interests."
The weekly Literary Gazette, aimed at a Soviet intellectual audience, earlier this year repeated an oft-heard theme here: that Mr. Carter had deliberately worsened relations with the USSR across the board.
On March 10 Pravda regretfully concluded that Edward Kennedy held "realistic" positions but was not holding high the "banner of liberalism." As a result, Mr. Carter was able to define the issues as "loyalty" and "patriotism." The Kremlin would prefer Kennedy if it could get him, but it realizes it probably can't, at least not this year.
On May 10 last year, Pravda's New York correspondent was referring to Mr. Reagan as a former movie actor who "has still not given up his dream of 'playing the role' of US president." On March 9 this year, Radio Moscow called Reagan a "double-dyed reactionary . . . behind whose back stands the military-industrial complex of the Western states."
Since then, however, the Soviet news media have been almost silent about Mr. Reagan, dropping their previous criticism in case he emerges as the man Moscow might have to deal with for the next four years.
As for John Anderson, the Soviets have said very little about him. Tass did jump into print March 10 by citing Mr. Anderson's support for SALT II, calling him a "prominent figure in the Republican Party."
Tass said Mr. Anderson had called Carter actions on Iran and Afghanistan "excessive" and opposed the use of military force to ensure access to Mideast oil.
But apart from Tass's five laudatory paragraphs at that time, the Soviet press has said nothing about Mr. Anderson, doubtless reflecting its own perplexity at how seriously to take him.