With new polls showing Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter running about even, the Reagan-John Anderson debate now looms as an event that could well be decisive in tilting the outcome one way or the other.
Most Washington observers see President Carter already a loser by his decision to refuse the three-way encounter in Baltimore Sept. 21.
These observers think he will be viewed by the voters as lacking in self-confidence, or even courage, and that, as a result, the old Carter image of lacking leadership qualities will be underscored.
But there are a few veteran political watchers -- most notably former Reagan campaign manager John Sears -- who think Carter made the righ decision and that it is Mr. Reagan who is taking the big risk that he might look bad in debate with the formidable Mr. Anderson.
"Anderson," Mr. Sears said, "could undescore the suspision that Reagan is not too knowledgeable."
However, Reagan, after a week that he and his aides deemed satisfying -- certainly one in which he aoided the flaps of the previous week -- appears tobe moving toward the dabate in a mood of confidence. Rumors that he might still decide to drop out of the debate with Anderson seem to have quieted.
The Reagan forces are assessing the negative publicity that the President is likely to receive for not debating -- from now on as well as during the debate -- as well worth the risk of taking on anderson one on one.
The President's strategy will be to try to change the subject this week -- that is, to find issues or even create events that will take the public's attention off the debates.
Could there be a Sept. 21 presidential surprise? a Carter political adviser was asked.
"I don't know about any big surprise," he answered. "But the President isn't going to pull of the campaign this week and let Reagan and Anderson have the spotlight by default."
Sears, in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington over the weekend, also said he thought it was important for the President to try to turn the voters' attention away from the debate and that Carter might just be able to accomplish that.
"The President," Sears said, "was right in not debating with Reagan and Anderson." In his view, Carter -- if he debated now -- would only be building Anderson at his (Carter's) own expense.
Meanwhile, a new Washington Post poll shows Reagan and Carter each drawing 37 percent of the vote from registered voters. Anderson is far behind, with 13 percent.
Other recent polls have shown Carter pulling close to Reagan, but kept from catching up by the Anderson vote. The Post poll is the first that indicates Carter is rapidly overcoming the Anderson drag on his candidacy.
The Post's survey, headlined "Economic prospects give Carter edge," offers this assessment: "Jimmy Carter can win the 1980 presidential election if positive economic trends continue and just a tiny percentage of voters now leaning toward one of his opponents decides that the President deserves some of the credit."
At any rate, what seemed like a Reagan runaway just before the conventions is turning into a tight race.
Reagan still holds a lead in polls that break the race down on a state-by-state, electoral vote basis. But past elections have shown that such an edge fades when the national polls begin to move in the other direction.