Carter vs. Reagan: how the race now looks

Now to take a look at the fall presidential election: * The issues. Purveyors of Washington wisdom for the most part are saying, flatly, that the economy will be the issue and that, if it continues to flag, Ronald Reagan willwin.

It is, indeed, difficult to argue that an incumbent President could survive a sharp recession, particularly if it shows no upturn by November.

But no one should forget that it was only a few months ago that the conventional wisdom had it that the President could not possibly prevail against the challenge of Senator Kennedy. That was a moment when Carter had plunged far down in public favor. And Kennedy of course was Kennedy -- with charisma, Camelot, all that.

What made those who forecast the President's doom look foolish was more than simply Kennedy's foundering on the so-called character question. What really gave Carter his needed thrust forward in the early primary tests was the foreign-affairs issue -- with the public rallying around the flag (and the President) on the hostages' seizure in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

What one can learn from this seems clear: that Carter may, indeed, be involved in some foreign-affairs project or crisis that might enable him to prevail -- even with high joblessness, continued high inflation, and recession.

Our guess is that the President will once again go to the summit to seek that elusive comprehensive Mideast settlement -- and that this might come just before the election. it's the sort of daring thing that Carter might well do, particularly if he is lagging behind Reagan.

* The Anderson factor. John Anderson looks strong enough today to figure heavily in the fall outcome. No one is quite saying he could win. But the political experts think there's a good prospect of Anderson getting enough votes to send the presidential race to the House.

What makes Anderson look so formidable now is that so many voters who don't care for either Reagan or Carter are saying they will back the Illinois congressman.

But in 1968 George Wallace looked very, very strong. Polls just before the election showed him picking up 20 percent backed Wallace. In the end, Wallace supporters generally decided they didn't want to waste their votes -- and voted for either Nixon or Humphrey, or not at all.

That could well happen this year. Liberal Democrats, now enchanted by Anderson, will likely give their grudging vote to Carter once they become convinced that to vote for Anderson would help elect Reagan.

And Republican moderates, who see Anderson as their candidate today, will likely back Reagan in the end -- if they see their vote for Anderson as a throw-away and if Reagan has convinced them that he is not a quick-on-the-trigger hawk or an inflexible conservative.

* The debates. The President, behind Reagan now in the polls, has agreed to debate the Californian -- while ruling out a debate with Anderson. Carter thinks he can whip Reagan. But he could be very wrong.

People seem to have forgotten that Reagan once had a TV debate with Robert Kennedy in which the Californian performed particularly well. Most observers, in fact, seemed to think Reagan got the better of Kennedy.

And more recently Reagan performed quite skillfully -- and knowledgeably -- in a TV debate with William Buckley on the Panama Canal treaties.

Our own assessment of a Carter-Reagan debate is this: Carter just might lose the election in this encounter.He may later be rueing the day he decided to take on Reagan just as Nixon did after the votes were counted in 1960 -- when Nixon said that his decision to debate John Kennedy was what cost him that election.

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