The American people may have to get used to the idea of no presidential debate whatever in 1980. This no-debate conclusion is only hinted at publicly by strategists for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as they maneuver over timing and two-man or multi-candidate formats.
But, privately, both sides concede that avoiding a debate entirely might in the long run best suit President Carter's purposes.
Meanwhile, the debate outcome was clouded further Aug. 27 by a National Press Club offer to sponsor a round-robin series of two-man debates: Carter-Reagan, Carter-Anderson, and Reagan-Anderson.
Mr. Carter is approaching the Labor Day starting gate nearly even with Mr. Reagan in the polls. But much of Reagan's potential support has already solidified beneath him, while Carter's is relatively soft. This means the President has more room to gain, most analysts agree.
By acting "presidential," staying above the fray, Carter can count on much of his natural constituency gravitating back to him, without any debates.
Already the President is showing signs of the "classic debate-avoidance" techniques, says Austin Ranney, a leading authority on the American election process.
"You never say you don't want to debate," Mr. Ranney observes. "You raise . . . objections about cities, timing, rules, who's included. It's a smoke screen. Nov. 5 comes and you're still arguing about details."
Carter's public bargaining position is that he wants "many debates," with a two-man debate in early September before a mid-September three-man debate to be sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Reagan's position is that he wants only two or three debates, and he will honor the league's invitation for a Sept. 18 or 20 debate, which will likely include independent John Anderson.
To force the Reagan hand, Carter accepted a National Press Club two-man debate invitation for early September. Resisting this gambit, the Reagan team said they will wait until after the league's Sept. 10 qualifying deadline for Mr. Anderson's inclusion before making their decision.
"It's bargainning," says Fred Wetheimer, senior vice-president of Common Cause. "At this stage of the game it's up to Reagan. If Reagan agrees to debate Carter in two-man debates, a forum will be found. Or he can hold the line for a three-man debate."
Mr. Wertheimer expressed concern at either a no-debate outcome or the exclusion of Anderson. "The debates in 1976 gave the American public an opportunity to see the candidates operating on their own feet -- more actual exposure of the candidates than by any other means.
"The stakes are high for the candidates. But the stakes also include what best suits the needs of the American people. Anyone who wants to sponsor these [two-man] debates has to think it through and not leap in to be the first on the block." Any potential two-man debate sponsor must be prepared to defend Anderson's exclusion, Wertheimer argues.
A no-debate outcome would suit Carter's basic goals, political observers here say. He wants to keep Anderson from gaining credibility, and he wants to keep Reagan from gaining "equality" status.
The current Carter strategy reportedly is to keep the President above the fray, leaving the attack on the Republican to surrogates like Vice-President Walter Mondale and others. Meanwhile, he will use the assets of incumbency -- the prestige of the White House, presidential motorcade appearances in other cities, domestic and foreign policy initiatives -- to hold the political center stage. The Carter staff leaks private poll findings, but not actual survey data , that purportedly show the public doesn't find Reagan "presidential."
Mr. Ranney observes: "The incumbent president has a substantial advantage, not only in image but in the ability to do things. A challenger can only promise."
Ranney, who edited a recent study, "The Past and Future of Presidential Debates," published by the American Enterprise Institute, explains that presidential debates are not a fixed feature in American politics. They occurred only twice in modern history -- 1960 and 1976 -- and then chiefly for "strategic" reasons, not out of "disinterested" concern for bringing issues to the public.
This time, the next move may be up to Reagan, but the final say on holding debates at all is Carter's. In the past the decision to debate was made nominally by both major party candidates, but in fact it was made by the incumbent, Ranney says.
"Debates more than any other single factor elected [John] Kennedy in 1960," Ranney says. "[Richard] Nixon's asset was that he was the more experienced man who would continue the popular President Eisenhower's administration.
"Kennedy was inexperienced, young, and not a very significant senator. In effect, Kennedy only tied in the series. He won the first debate. But post-debate polls showed he appeared to be Nixon's equal. Nixon yielded a narrow lead to Kennedy which shrank to an eyelash at the end."
Jimmy Carter also saw Gerald Ford come back from more than 30 points down in the polls in 1976 to almost win.
"To debate Reagan would be to give the challenger an equal platform," Ranney says, with the incumbent becoming, in voter's eyes, "candidate Carter, not President Carter."