The 2/3 debate: whose risks are greatest?

The presidential debate is intensifying even before it begins. President Carter has already won a technical point. The empty chair, which would have reminded viewers of his absence, has been dropped by the League of Women Voters.

The President's position was that the chair would prejudice the debate against him -- and the league came around to his point of view.

But the contest, scheduled for Sunday night (10 p.m., Sept. 21) in Baltimore with GOP candidate Ronald Reagan and independent John B. Anderson present, and Mr. Carter absent, still is regarded by political observers as a risk for the President.

In fact, some presidential watchers have gone as far as to say it is the biggest political risk of Carter's career.

The negative possibilities, which Carter people themselves concede:

1. Mr. Reagan will be so impressive that, somewhat like John F. Kennedy in the first televised debate against Richard M. Nixon in 1960, he will become unbeatable.

2. Mr. Anderson, through the national exposure provided by the large TV audience, will gain stature in the eyes of the voters -- especially at the expense of Carter, since polls indicate the Illinois congressman takes more voters away from the President than from Reagan.

On one issue -- that the President would lose even before the debate took place because the voters think he should be taking part -- Carter may be doing better than he had anticipated.

Despite some predictions to the contrary, no widespread, high-intensity wave of criticism against the President has emerged.Of this, one political adviser of Carter says:

"If everybody had started to call the President 'chicken' for not debating, we would have been in big trouble. But that hasn't happened. Sure, I guess most people would like to see him in the debate Sunday. But they don't care that much one way or other."

If voters viewed the President's decision not to be part of a three-way debate as unfair -- both to the other candidates and to the American public -- this could have lost the debate for Carter, no matter how the other contestants performed.

But so far, reporters and pollsters are not finding that kind of reaction -- at least not to the emotional level and to the extent that would prove very damaging to the President.

Both Reagan and Anderson are seeking to underscore the Carter decision not to debate while the President and his team have been doing all they can to shift public focus away from the debate. New developments in Iran on the hostages have helped to divert voter attention elesewhere.

One important factor in the impact of the Sunday debate will be the size of the TV audience. Will it be as large as was once anticipated, upward of 100 million?

Still, the debate doubtless will be a "big draw," an event which could contribute immensely to this year's making of the president.

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