Although economic issues are foremost in most Americans' mids, foreign policy issues still have the potential to decide the election. This is the view of a number of foreign policy and public opinion specialists as the US presidential campaign moves into the final three-week stretch.
Republican strategist still fear that even at this late hour, President Carter may spring an "October surprise," in foreign affairs that would tip the balance toward the incumbent.
White House officials scoff at this idea. But no one denies the possibility that some overseas event, in the Gulf, for example, might suddenly offer President Carter a chance to look presidential.
Aslo not be ruled out, for example, is what Washington opinion analyst Albert H. Cantril calls an "Ayatollah surprise." Imagine what would happen if Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pressed by the demands of Iran's war with Iraq, were to offer what amounted to release of the American hostages in return for spare parts for Iran's US- supplied arsenal?
Given a considerable blurring of differences between Carter and Ronald Reagan in recent months, release of the hostages before election day could go far toward giving Carter the edge, in the view of some analysts. The blurring has been a result of Carter's move to the political right on many issues and Mr. Reagan's move toward the middle.
There is much that would militate against an "Ayatollah surprise." While some Iranian officials have expressed a clear preference for Carter over Reagan, it is not clear that Ayatollah Khomeini shares their view . Even if he did share it, it is not clear that he could deliver the hostages. And Iran does not yet appear desperate for US aid.
But Reagan strategists see straws in the wind, and they wonder. Algeria, along with other nations, is working hard behind the scenes to find a diplomatic solution to the US- Iranian crisis. That kind of effort may only produce results in the long run -- in other words, long after the US election. However, Reagan's advisers also contend that American industries spacializing in producing spare parts for American-supplied Iranian aircraft have been activated for the possibility of a US-Iran deal involving such spares.
But the US might incur the opposition of much of the Arab world in making such a deal, and that is another problem.
The point is not that the "Ayatollah surprise" is likely. In the view of most foreign affairs specialists, it is improbable. But analysis of the possible consequences of such a surprise shows how one concrete event, perhaps of marginal consequence to the world balance of power, could tip the balance in a tight election such as this one.
"There are so many unsettled issues in the world, that foreign affairs could well become them issue in this campaign," says Mr. Catnril, who is director of Public Research Inc. "You've got SALT and the US-Soviet relationship, the [ Persian] Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan. . . a lot of shoes left to drop."
At the same time, however, Cantril says that the "finger-on-the-button" issue -- the question of Reagan's reliability as the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger -- has not hurt the GOP candidate as much as might have been expected. In Cantril's view, some Americans do have qualms about Reagan holding the ultimate responsibility for nuclear defense. But such qualms are offset by a considerable residue of feeling that President Carter, while a moral man, is "in over his head" in foreign affairs.
In apparent desperation over what he considers to be a failure of the press and public to focus on Reagan's vulnerability on "war and peace" as well as other issues, President Carter recently struck what were widely regarded as low rhetorical blows against his Republican opponent. On Oct. 8, the White House, reacting to criticism, revealed that Carter was going to shift the tone of his campaign back to "high-road" rhetoric. But it is also clear, according to a White House official, that the President does not intend to change one thing: his attempt to portray himself as the "peace candidate" in this election.
It is a tactic that has helped win a number of US presidential elections in the past, going back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson's promise to keep the US out of war in 1916. There also was Dwight Eisenhower's "I will go to Korea" -- with its implication that he would bring peace. And there was Richard Nixon's "I have a peace plan for Vietnam."
One of Carter's obvious, overiding aims is to raise doubts about Reagan's judgment on issues of "war and peace." Asked to select the best Carter statement on foreign policy, one White House aide chose a quote from a recent Philadelphia television interview in which the President stressed repeatedly his commitment to peace.
The American people will have to go to the polls on Nov. 4, the President said, bearing in mind a comparison of Reagan statements and policies with Carter's past record of "maintaining this nation at peace . . . trying to control nuclear arms . . . working in harmony with our allies and friends for a peaceful commitment around the world. . . ."
Reagan's answer has been to charge that "weak and inconsistent" policies on the part of the Carter administration run the risk of "backing the US into a war" that it does not want.
But the American public has not seen much systematic debate of such issues between the two sides. Reagan, for one, appears to have chosen to focus on economic issues. As one of his leading advisers puts it, "We're going more aggressively on the domestic issues, because they're there to feel and touch. . . . The defense and foreign policy debate is more abstract. . . . Perhaps only 10 percent of the population is really interested in defense and foreign policy issues."
Those issues could in the end, however, prove to be more important for this nation than the domestic issues. And many of the foreign policy differences between Reagan and Carter, while blurred in recent months, remain nonetheless profound. As one example, Reagan's suggestion that the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union be withdrawn marks a clear departure from the Carter approach to arms control.
But with the exception of recent US News & World Report interviews with the two leading candidates and an Associated Press interview with Reagan, that difference has not received much public examination. The White House is probably right to have subsequently complained that the press has focused too much on the style of the two candidates and not enough on substance.
At the same time, however, Carter's opponents may be right to complain of some unfairness on the part of the White House. It was perfectly legitimate for the White House to issue, as it did recently, a list of past Reagan comments in which the governor suggested possible American military intervention in half a dozen problem areas and crisis points around the world. But what the White House left out of these sparse quotations was the hedging that the governor threw in with those statements.
The differences between the two leading candidates on the Middle East, which once seemed profound, may be in the process of narrowing. Reagan has for some time called for the establishment of an American military presence in the Middle East. But that is precisely the direction in which Carter has been moving, although more slowly and cautiously than Reagan would have advised.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Reagan long has advocated positions strongly favorable to Israel. Carter has been supportive of Israel while bringing the Palestinian issue more to the fore. Unlike the administration, Reagan apparently does not consider the question of Palestinian rights to be a core issue for that conflict or for the Middle East as a whole.
Perhaps in Latin America and the Caribbean one can find some of the greatest differences between the two leading candidates.Reagan sees Soviet and Cuban moves behind almost every development which is adverse to the US in that part of the world. The Carter administration has tended to focus more on injustices and social inequalities as root causes for unrest in that region.
Carter has taken a more stand-offish attitude toward Latin American dictators than Reagan. Reagan speaks of "aligning" the US with certain Latin American nations.But some foreign policy experts point out that most key Latin American nations do not relish the idea of being "aligned" with the US.
All of this amounts to one more area in Campaign '80 where the candidates have made allegations against each other while avoiding any systematic evaluation of their differing views.