However Sunday night's debate turns out, President Carter's men are settling in for a long ordeal over the "Anderson factor." The two actual debate participants have less at stake. Both face short-term risks -- ronald Reagan another miscue, John Anderson another debate drubbing by his fellow native Illinoisan. In the longer run, Mr. Reagan holds an overall electoral advantage that Mr. Carter must erode, while Mr. Anderson can at best shore up his leaky third-place barge with a showy Baltimore debate appearance.
But for the man not planning at this writing to appear, the debate is but one episode in a frustrating strategic challenge likely to last until election day.
The current Carter tactic is to belittle, low-key the Anderson/Lucey ticket, and to concentrate firepower on Reagan. But by mid-October, If Anderson stubbornly persists as a decisive factor, he will be targeted, too, for the kind of harsh treatment meted out to Reagan this week with the President's charge the Republican is injecting racism and hatred into the campaign.
Carter campaign sources indicate the surface calm projected to the public masks an underlying lack of confidence in several areas, with the Anderson factor the most prominent.
"If Anderson doesn't sink fast, he's next for the kind of hitting Reagan's taking," a Democrat close to the campaign indicates. "[Presidential pollster Patrick] Caddell says, 'We can beat this Reagan guy." But mention Anderson and New York and his eyeballs roll."
Other Carter operatives complains that Democratic fund raising is lagging way behind. They worry about the Republicans' ability to outspend them "by a million dollars state" in key contests.
"We're weak out in the territories," comments another, concerned the campaign is not moving fast enough on the nuts-and-bolts campaign tasks like voter registration and get-out-the-vote planning.
State party pros think the Carter chiefs are too preoccupied with the Washington perspective, and are not organizing to meet the Anderson challenge in the field.
"The campaign does not exists in Massachusetts," says a Bay State Democratic committeeman and Carter supporter in that democratic stronghold, "Massachusetts is being taken for granted, and I think it's a being taken for granted, and I think it's a mistake. Anderson appeals to the liberal intellectuals. Catholics are swinging to Reagan. I still think carter will win Massachusetts -- but if Anderson's getting 13 percent, 14 percent nationality, he's approaching 20 here. And reagan can win with 41, 42 percent of the vote."
By Washington standards, the Carter campaign has let out little in the way of hard political intelligence.
Carter strategists so far have tended to play down the possibility of their winning the popular vote on Nov. 4, but losing the election to Reagan in the state-by-state electoral tally. However, computer studies by neutral voter analysts suggest this could be the case in 1980. And again, anderson could prove the determining factor.
"If Reagan carries a number of states with 40, 42 percent of the vote, Carter is getting 37, 38 percent, and Anderson 10 or 13 percent, it's very easy to imagine an election with that result [carter the popular vote winner but Electoral College loser]," says Austin Ranney, codirector of election studies at the American Enterprises Institute.
Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin has alluded to the prospect of the popular vote loser winning the election.
Calculations such as Mr. Ranney's are based on Anderson taking up to twice as many votes from Carter as from Reagan, although in a state such as Illinois he takes more from Reagan.
Republican pollster Robert Teeter thinks anderson might "climb a few points" after his debate Sunday night, but then will fade toward the end of the race. "My instinct is he'll turn out at 10, 8, 9 percent," Mr. Teeter says. "But in an election that will be decided in many states by a point or two, Anderson could swing the election by taking 4 percent, or 2 percent."
Anderson, too, must look beyond Sunday's debate to his own survival as a challenger, his supporters say.
"The thing to do now is to change his style with the debate," says Richard Bennett, an anderson pollster. "His campaign of ideas, which he's trying desperately to revive, has disappeared. The national polls show him slipping. He's not seen as an alternative to Carter and Reagan anymore."
"Anderson is looking now like a spoiler," Mr. Bennett says. "All Anderson would have to do is win New York to throw the election into the House."