Most Amercans -- though not all -- expect the long-awaited Carter-Reagan debate to help snapthe yawningly indecisive 1980 presidential campaign into focus.
Seeing the candidates share the same TV screen Tuesday evening Oct. 28, and watching for any leadership edge one or the other might project, undecided voters could resolve their 1980 polling-booth dilemma in that 90-minute span.
The debate will occur in the midst of late- campaign stirring of basic party allegiances among voters. The ethnic, class, economic, and regional forces that bind voters to the Democratic and Republican Parties are weaker than in the past , political experts say. Still, voter attachment to party may be stronger in 1980 than to the candidates.
Both candidates hope to work the late- campaign "return of the native" forces to their advantage with the debate. Both see a gain in staging a debate at a climactic point in the campaign -- just as the final week begins.
"The Reagan people hope to put the campaign in suspension" for the 10 days prior to the TV debate, says Thomas E. Patterson, Syracuse University expert on politics and the news media. "They've seen the undecided vote slipping away. announcing the debate will likely suspend decision as it did in 1976, when the undecided voters held off a couple weeks before the first debate to see what might happen.
"For Carter, the debate will dominate the agenda, diffusing any attack on the President's economic record and giving a more upbeat tone to a campaign in which the lack of fire seems to reflect most on the Carter performance."
Strategically, the late timing could be crucial. "If either makes a significant mistake, it could make the difference in the election," Mr. Patterson says.
A quick sample in Boston of on-the-street reaction to the news of the debate produced mixed responses:
"A debate can't help but give some uplift to an otherwise dreary campaign," said Gordon Ramsey, a Wellesley, Mass., lawyer.
"Everything is quicksandy, swampy now," said a nurseryman from Orleans, Mass. "Most people are anxious to make a definitive choice. If there are contrasts to emerge between the two candidates, they will emerge very clearly in the debate."
Hard economic facts carry more weight in the nation's heartland, said John and Mary Iseminger, who run a farm in Hudson, Iowa. "Farmers are watching interest rates more that the election. Fifteen percent interest rates are doing more damage to farmers than anything else," Mrs. Iseminger said.