As if he were a rookie in football training camp, John Anderson is getting another reminder he is up against tough, wily pros in his quest to stay part of the team of candidates seeking the White House.
Jimmy Carter's latest effort to limit Mr. Anderson to one debate at most -- if not cut him from the presidential debate lineup entirely -- is seen as part of a broader Carter strategy to contain the Anderson candidacy and to draw Mr. Reagan into as early a one-on-one debate as possible. Mr. Carter wants to narrow the campaign quickly to a Carter-Reagan focus and press the Californian into mistakes.
Anderson's naming of former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick J. Lucey -- senior spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's nomination campaign -- to form a bipartisan independent ticket will not likely dissuade Mr. Carter from his complaint that he would be facing "two Republicans" in a three-man debate.
While Mr. Lucey is well liked among Democratic professionals, he is not widely known among the public. Regionally he does not balance the ticket, one Washington Democratic strategist observes, adding that an Easterner like Boston Mayor Kevin H. White would have been preferred. And he is thought likely to be seriously outshone by George Bush and Walter Mondale in a three-man vice-presidential debate.
The Reagan forces have let "the Carter camp stir the pot," as one Reaganite put it. But the GOP candidate also apparently wants to get into an early debate with Carter.
"Carter is taking the heat for excluding Anderson," a Republican strategist here says. "But the burden of proof is on Anderson to prove he should be in the debates. Right now the people don't really think he's a major factor."
What Reagan wants is a chance to recoup from his misstep last week over official US ties with Taiwan -- which drew a scathing protest from mainland China.
"The whole China situation put Reagan into the trap Carter wanted him in," one Reagan supporter said. "Reagan's diplomacy and foreign policy expertise has been a key question. Instead of meeting it head on as they tried to do with the Bush visit to China, they made it worse.
"It can still be corrected. In late August and early September, these things happen. Reagan needs to show it was a one-time bloop. He has to demonstrate across-the-board competence. A debate fits into that picture. In debates he comes across calm, reassuring, good-natured."
By all appearances, the debates will be made into a strategic football in the days and weeks ahead. Reagan campaign officials will meet for the first time today with the League of Women Voters, who have scheduled debates on Sept. 18 in Baltimore, Oct. 13 in Portland, Ore., and Oct. 27 in Cleveland.
The Carter forces have mentioned other potential debate sponsors, including Des Moines and St. Petersburg newspapers, as opportunities for excluding Anderson.
But other sponsors may also insist Anderson be included.
James Gannon, executive editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, said as of Monday he had received no response from the White House to his newspaper's bid for a debate the week of Sept. 8 to 12. A Reagan reply was noncommittal.
Anderson had not been invited "several weeks ago" when the initial invitations went out, Mr. Gannon says. But Anderson would definitely now be invited, too, Gannon says, on the basis of the independent's demonstrated national following and presence on state ballots.
Carter apparently wants to insert at least one debate before the League of Women Voters' Sept. 18 event, to get the message across that Anderson is not really a serious contender and puncture his support. Anderson's campaign, now in the 15 percent range in the polls, hurts Carter more than Reagan in key states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
The risk for Carter is that Anderson's exclusion might be read as "unfair" by the public, and drive voter sympathy to the Illinois congressman. Overtly excluding Anderson would also be tricky for Reagan, who had tried to maneuver Anderson and other Republican nominees into a Nashua, N.H., debate between himself and George Bush early in the primaries.
Lucey, formally accepting Anderson's running mate offer, reaffirmed his Democratic ties. He attacked Carter harshly in terms that echoed the Kennedy primary campaign, particularly objecting to "planned unemployment as a tool of economic policy."
"I remain a Democrat," he said. "It is Jimmy Carter who has abandoned the Democratic Party.