A presidential election as close as 1980's could be decided by a narrow triumph of style over substance. In terms of policy and substance, the major candidates, President Carter and Ronald Reagan, are crowding each other on the center ground. Just this week the President matched Mr. Reagan's earlier proposals to revive a lagging steel industry, and reagan joined the Democrat in pledging aid to New York and vowing no change from the administrationhs farm plan.
Thus, the campaign styles of the two candidates may now be sending the more decisive signals to the voters, political observers say. Carter is revealing a tough-in- the-corners, aggressive streak. And Reagan is showing a play-it-safe, center- of-the-ring manner, but getting in a few rough chops of his own.
"Magnanimity" vs. "meanness" is the way James David Barber, Duke University presidential scholar, escribes the stylistic choice the candidates present. Mr. Barber's studies of presidential character have been influential in carter White House circles.
Carterhs attacks in Atlanta and Los Angeles on his Republican opponent, charging him with racism and being prone to starting a war, reflect a larger Carter preoccupation with tactics of campaigning, Barber says.
"Carterhs making a mistake. He's being too narrowly tactical. Hehs not taking the grander FDR route," he says.
Carter erred earlier in not yielding to the Kennedy demand for an open Democratic convention, and again in not going for a presidential debate, Barber says.
"Roosevelt would have shown a larger vision," Barber says. "Carter still would have beaten Kennedy at the convention, and Reagan in a debate. He would have let Kennedy win the tactical battle but would have carried Kennedy delegates wtih him out of the convention, instead of letting them go to Anderson.
"In the debate, FDR would have redefined the election in a way that would have been any politician's dream. He would have said, 'You can vote for me -- or if you don't like me, there are two altervatives to me' and split his opposition in half."
By contrast, Reagan showed some of the swallow-your-opposition-with-magnanimity technique in the truncated two-man Baltimore debate, Barber maintains -- ""with Reagan calling Anderson 'John while Anderson was glaring at him."
"This is fundamentally an election of conciliation," Barber says. "People want to take it easy, avoid confrontation, end anxiety. There's an amorphous gap in what the candidates say on issues. Nobody really believes what they promise. People say, 'We'll see.'"
Neither candidate has the electorate's measure, Barber believes. "They see carter as a mean, little guy. Reagan should respond by saying 'i know I've said thins I've regretted' and flow all over Carter. Unfortunately, Reagan and Carter are both heing told to be aggressive."
Carterhs aggressive campaign style, according to one minority view among political analysts, could help him offset his image as an ineffectual leader, too easily taken advantage of in negotiations.
But it also could prove troubling to voters -- such as those in the suburbs sensitive to themes like "open debate" and "fair play" -- attracted to Carter in 1976 for his professions of charity and rectitude to contrast with the Watergate White House.
For the moment, the Carter campaign is dealin g with the mean campaign charge by saying the public expects some rough and tumble, and that Reagan statements using racial code words and threatening resort to troops in foreign affairs made him fair game. The Reagan campaign is letting surrogates and the press characterize the Carter attack.
Despite the Carter campaign aggressiveness, Barber is not changing his well-known evaluation of Carter's character as "active- positive."
"Hehs still putting a lot of energy into his work," Barber says. "He's still getting pleasure out of it. Whether hehs mean or not, he's not unhapply being president. He's not unhappy zapping reagan.
"He's not shown he would create some national tragedy out of his interior character the way Johnson and Nixon did. I rush to say he's proved inept in notable wasy -- chiefly in negotiation, as I predicted. But there's a distinction between a destructive inner compulsion and making mistakes."
The other principal Carter scholar, University of Illinois political scientist Betty Glad, treats Carter more harshly.
"There are different kinds of negative campaigns," Mrs. Glad says. "Pointing out your opponent's weakness is part of the game. If you don't, who will? But provided you're not using innuendo, side attacks."
"There's a subtle side of Carter's campaigning that makes it hard for the opponent to deal with," Glad says. cIf the other side replies, they advertise the charge, and in a sense they are made to look defensive."
In Carter's previous campaigns for public office, dating back to the '60s in Georgia, his tough campaign style worked for him.
"This time, with more atention on Carter it's not working," Glad says. "In terms of his own interests, he may be taking the negative attack too far. For all Carter's political skills, they're nonetheless based on experiment instead of precise knowledge. He's taking a high risk."
"Cater doesn't need to use innuendo, a carry-over from the past," Glad says. "It's inappropriate to go for the side shot or soft underbelly.
"His approach should be more open, more presidential. He should say, 'Here's what my opponent has said, and here's what I say', and leave it at that."