If Americans are a little confused over just where the presidential race stands, it may be a sign of their good judgment. The two main yardsticks for measuring White House contests -- the "national tide" and "state-by-state" methods -- show conflicting results.
Those who tend to judge the race by the national tide of public polls see the race as statistically even -- with some of the "fundamentals," such as the advantages of incumbency and signs of an improving economy, favoring President Carter.
In the last five major polls -- the Time magazine, Roper, Los Angeles Times, Harris, and Washington Post surveys -- Ronald Reagan averaged 38.8 percent, Mr. Carter 36.6 percent, and John Anderson 15.2 percent, with the momentum from earlier polls favoring Carter.
Those looking at state-by-state electoral counts have Mr. Reagan well ahead. The Newsweek Sept. 8 electoral survey gave Carter only 91 electoral votes in the "likely" or "leaning" Democratic columns, with 320 for Reagan, and 127 rated a tossup. To win, a candidate must have 270 electoral votes.
The fact is, with seven weeks to go, the finish line is still nowhere in sight, most experts concede.
"The race is still to be run," one Wisconsin political observer says of the race in his state. The point holds nationally.
In terms of physical, on-site candidate campaigning, the race will never reach most states -- or will touch them only briefly. Both major candidates are running primarily "a national tide" race even when visiting states in their must-win columns. Texas, for example, is targeted for both Carter and Reagan visits this week. But the candidates will be projecting messages intended for national or regional voting blocs as much as for home-state voters -- like Reagan's appeal to Hispanics and other Roman Catholic Americans in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in Houston and San Antonio when he visits the Rio Grande this week.
Thus, at this fuzzy stage, with the race close, two other measures come into play: the "who's got the other on the defensive" and "whose team has it more together" tests.
Reagan, after stumbling over his own verbal mistakes until Labor Day, has been hitting Carter effectively with attacks on energy, the economy, even "Billygate," and -- over the weekend in an Italian-American address -- on the hostages in Iran.
On the Carter side, his campaign aides worry that his hyperbole -- such as "completely reversing the despair" in older cities and his boast that inflation has been cut "sharply" -- could pose a credibility problem.
Reagan's tactical corrections were twofold: (1) His staff has shielded him from the press and from occasions where impromptu remarks could get him into trouble; and (2) he has begun using "neutral" congressional data on the economy and administration data on energy to attack Carter's record.
Earlier, Carter had successfully deflected Reagan attacks by impugning his facts.
The Reagan onslaught, plus Carter's reneging on the presidential debate, has clearly put the President on the defensive for the moment.
However, many Reaganites remain uneasy.
"The organization is in disastrous shape," one Reagan team member says. "Reagan is on the way down. You can't win just by knocking Carter. They have to make some positive news."
At the heart of the sentiments voiced by some of the Reagan pros is the sinking feeling that the Reagan team-style organization -- insisted on by the candidate himself -- will be outmaneuvered for the critical small margin that may decide victory.
"There's no one there with the vision of overall strategy -- orchestrating advertising, scheduling, and travel -- needed to win," one Reagan supporter says.
Part of the problem remains the candidate himself, seen as reluctant to take charge. "You have to pushm him to excellence," this source says. "He'll listen to everybody. He doesn't like confrontation. He doesn't like trouble. At 11: 15, you have his ear and leave the room. At 11:30, the others come in and persuade him the other way."
The Reagan team bears most of the private criticism.
"The Californians in charge are doing better," says a Republican critic. "The addition of [veteran campaign strategist] Stu Spencer [to travel with Reagan] was a real positive addition.
"But they're making mistakes. The Stealth-leak thing should have been held. And the call for [Attorney General Benjamin] Civiletti's resignation was off in timing and in having (campaign director William) Casey do it. Casey's smart, but he's just not articulate on camera. They still need a heavyweight out front."
To some Reaganites, the challenger's troubles will start after next Sunday's Reagan- Anderson debate, which Carter has vowed to pass up. Reagan would then have to debate Carter. And further, the Republican will have to develop positive reasons for voters to back him, they say.
Both national and state polls suggest this need to motivate voters positively for Reagan may be right. Carter has made strong gains against Reagan in both the latest Washington Post survey and the California Poll, despite extremely low approval ratings for his White House performance. In other words, Carter is running ahead of his record -- the very point Reagan had hoped to trip him on.
The Post poll showed 44 percent of the national public thought Carter "just can't cut it as President" -- his lowest score to date. And California Poll director Mervin Field says: "Carter is downrated on his job performance more than any previous president in California. To come from 31 points down in July to only 10 points down in early September, with that job performance, has to be heartening to Carter."