President Carter's increasingly strident campaign rhetoric seems to spring from a certain desperation. The polls show him behind Ronald Reagan in the electoral votes need for victory. Yet it is a question whether he will help his cause by lashing out with such undisguised fury and contempt at his Republican opponent. Many voters may decide that, other things being equal -- and equally mediocre? -- Mr. Reagan is simply a nicer man.
It is unworthy of Mr. Carter, as President and as a human being, to charge that it would be a "catastrophe" if Mr. Reagan came to office. Or that Americans might then be "separated black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban." Perhaps such exaggeration is no worse than that heard in many political campaigns in US history. But it is disappointing because it belies what the President claims he stands for -- personal integrity and decency. It in fact suggests to americans that Mr. Carter is as capable of a smear campaign today as he was in 1970 when he ran for governor of Georgia.
The problem stems from having sold Americans such an idealized image of himself. By now the public probably perceives that Mr. Carter is no better or worse than most men who have occupied the White House. He has strenghts. He also has weaknesses. But the sad thing is that the President often seems to be saying and doing what points up the latter more than the former.
Mr. Reagan, for his part, has not lost anything by drawing back from his earlier inclination, too, to engage in low-blow attacks. He in fact has picked up strength. Should this tell both men something? Nasty rhetoric may make the evening news and the morning headlines. But it does not reflect that quality of leadership and character which Americans will be voting for when they enter the polling booths on Nov. 4. There is still time for the candidates to show whether they are statesmen -- or small-minded politicians.