TV debate prize: winner may capture slew of fence-sitters

The undecideds remain undecided -- and a big enough bloc of voters to swing the outcome of the presidential race in either direction. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan will be trying in their Oct. 28 televised debate somehow to persuade those voters to make up their minds.

"It was because we couldn't grab the undecideds the way we wanted to that we decided to debate," says a Reagan aide. "We had convinced many of them that they shouldn't vote for Carter. But we hadn't talked them into voting for Reagan. We hope to make Reagan voters out of them in the debate."

A Carter associate puts it in similar terms:

"We've got to get all those undecided Democrats to vote for Carter. They are starting to come back, away fom Anderson. But many sound as if they won't vote at all, at least not for president.

"And some say they may vote for Reagan. Carter hopes to show them -- by his performance in the debate -- that they should vote for him."

Officials at the top of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are expressing bewilderment over the slowness with which the undecideds are becoming decideds.

"I called out to a number of congressional districts all around the country just the other day," a GOP official says, " and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was told that in some places those who hadn't made up their minds were nearly half of the voters. And I also found that the average of undecideds was about one-third of the voters, and either holding or getting larger."

A key Democratic politician says of the undecideds: "There has been some hardening, some choosing up sides, among the undecideds. But not much. And the election is almost here.

"I've been in this business for a quarter of a century, and I've never seen it like this before. So many voters simply don't care very much for any of the candidates.

"And they tell us that they aren't going to make a decision until the last minute -- perhaps after they get into the voting booth -- if they vote at all."

Voters are telling political leaders and pollsters that they are undecided for varying reasons:

* Some say they are cynical about the election process, that no matter who is president he won't be able to solve the nation's problems.

* Some say they are looking for outstanding leadership in the presidency, and that none of the candidates appears to have that kind of stature.

* And some of them say they want to hear more about where the candidates stand on the issues before they make up their minds.

"What concerns us," a Democratic official says, "is the large group of what we all 'waverers," those who are telling pollsters they will vote for Cater but who really aren't that much behind the President.

"We're afraid that those border really should be classified as undecideds -- and that, in the end, they may not vote at all."

The Reagan people are particularly concerned that the undecideds, or most of them, will finally end up voting for the President.

"There's a tendency for incumbents to pick up most of those undecided votes in the last week or so of the campaign," a Reagan aide commented. "Ford picked up most of the undecideds in the last few days. "That's why he almost beat Carter."

Reagan public-opinion assessers re finding that many undecided voters are holding out on moving behind the Californian because of the war and peace issue.

Thus, Reagan was seeking to east the anxieties of those who feel he is too "hawkish" when he addressed the nation on TV Sunday night and said if elected he would try to achieve an agreement with the Soviets on limiting strategic nuclear arms. "As president," he said, "I will immediately open negotiations on a SALT III treaty."

But will the candidates be able to woo thse undecideds to the polls? Already some pollsters are forecasting the lowest percentage turnout of American voters since Calvin Coolidge was elected president in 1924.

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