How tough will John Anderson prove to crush? This question is preoccupying Carter forces and Washington politics watchers, as the President's men now drive to weaken Anderson on what they see as the second front of their re-election war.
There is no doubt the attack is on, aided by Anderson's own slide in at least one national poll and his troubles in getting big money quickly. The news media have resumed their close watch, posting themes like "Anderson debilitated by a flurry of negative publicity."
However, there is evidence the Anderson campaign has more staying power than the Carter camp would suspect.
Carter forces have recruited the leaders of three major Kennedy field divisions whose troops are partial to Anderson -- women's movement activists, environmentalists, and the arch-liberal Americans for Democratic Action.
This effort to peel away liberal Democratic support is affronting many of the rank- and-file members of these groups, however. "The White House wants us to take out after John Anderson," complains one environmental activist, "someone who's been saying some good things about the environment. Many of us wanted the leadership to say they were speaking for themselves, not the organization, when they endorsed Carter."
And all this appears to be only hardening the Anderson armament against Carter. "Carter now is really our opponent," says Anderson spokesman Michael Rosenbaum. "Reagan supporters seem to be ideologically attuned to him, so there's less room for inroads into Reagan. It's getting clearer to Carter he's not going to be re-elected. Strategically, we're competing with Carter now for our place in the election."
The Reagan camp sees Carter's emphasis on the Anderson threat as partly a genuine worry, and partly a diversion.
"Our polls from the field don't show as much of a drop for Anderson as the CBS-NY Times [poll] shows," says James Baker, a Reagan strategist.
"We've got Anderson in the 15 percent-16 percent range in our state-by-state surveys, holding up after the debate through Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 27, 28) -- and higher than that in Oregon and Washington," Mr. Baker says.
The CBS-New York Times poll released Sept. 28 showed Anderson's support slipping to 9 percent the weekend of the debate from 14 Mr. Baker points out that not all of Reagan's gains in the latest surveys have been at Anderson's expense, as news accounts have emphasized.
"Some of the undecideds are coming to us," Baker insists. The Carter camp's emphasis on the Anderson factor may be intended to disguise a move of the "undecided" vote to Reagan, he suggests, or as a way to excuse the President's own vulnerability in the polls. Dispute over the Anderson factor, it is argued, postpones debates over the Carter record.
Actually, if Anderson is now in the single- digit range of national support, he is somewhat behind in the slide predicted for him by most observers. "I'm suprised his trial heat ratings have held up as much as they have," says James Shriver, editor of the Gallup poll, which had pegged Anderson at 15 percent in its latest, pre-debate survey. "I'd have expected him to be down about 8 percent or 9 percent, where he may be now."
Anderson's direct-mail fund raising has been gaining despite his reported slide. He is still shy of the big money he needs for media advertising. But the Federal Elections Commission ruled Oct. 2 that banks legally could lend Anderson funds, to be repaid out of federal money if Anderson gets 5 percent of the vote.
At another level, the Anderson factor is the subject of intense intellectual debate, over the potential wasting of an anti-Reagan vote.
Leon Shull, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action, makes the liberal pragmatic case for endorsing Carter. "In every election, anyone who wants to play a significant role has to take sides," he says. "Anderson has no chance to become president of the United States. Carter is no dreamboat. But he's what we've got.
"There's enough of a difference between Carter and Reagan for a choice. We don't have a referendum on Carter. We have a choice between two candidates. In foreign policy there's no doubt. I don't want someone [Reagan] running our foreign policy who thinks we were wrong on Rhodesia, the Panama Canal, and the Salt II treaty."