After several weeks of slippage Ronald Reagan has finally stabilized his campaign. The Republican presidential hopeful still holds a slight edge -- according to claims in the Reagan camp, admissions in the Carter camp, and findings of pollsters.
"If the election were held right now," a political analyst told the Monitor, "we'd have a long night vote with Reagan probably winning by a hair. But it could go either way."
The softening in the Reagan lead has come mainly in the big electoral-vote states of Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, observers note. Further, President Carter has apparently taken a commanding lead in New York after easing the anxieties within the Jewish community there.
The stabilizing of the Reagan position -- which prevented Carter from overtaking him -- came in the South, particularly in Florida and Texas where he now is ahead, and in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri where he now is given a good chance of winning one or more states.
Further, Reagan appears to have put a lock on the California outcome, where some polls had earlier showed a big erosion of the Reagan lead there.
Elements in Reagan's halt of Carter's upward surge:
* The Reagan decision to debate Carter put the political spotlight on the TV encounter and on both candidates -- and away from centering on the President's actions on global events, particularly on the hostages.
* The war-and-peace issue -- where Reagan is considered more hard-line than the President -- has begun to play extremely well for him in the South and border states of late -- after the issue has proved to be damaging in the big, Northern states.
At the same time Reagan efforts to moderate this "hawkish" image -- for example, his statement that he would move quickly to seek a SALT III agreement with the Soviets if he is elected president -- has tended to slow the Carter gain in the big-industrial states.
* The Reagan announcement that he would appoint a woman to the US Supreme Court has evoked some ridicule from women leaders who say the candidate is merely making a token effort to divert attention from his opposition to Equal Rights Ammendment (ERA).
However, pollsters are finding that Reagan is making some headway now in luring women voters away from Carter -- where the President has all along been the women's favorite.
The main reason women are backing Mr. Carter, however, is not so much the ERA but their perception that he would be less likely to involve the United States in war than Mr. Reagan, some analysts say.
* Gerald Ford's particularly strong endorsements of Reagan in the last couple of weeks, from a number of platforms around the US and on national TV, have helped to persuade moderate Republicans to leave Anderson and back the challenger.
* And, finally, the anticipated endorsement of Reagan by Eugene McCarthy is already helping to ease the anxiety of voters who have perceived Reagan as a right-wing extremist.
Both Reagan and Carter now see the race relatively frozen until next Tuesday's debate -- where both concede the outcome might swing the election in either direction.
The televised debate is set for 9:30 p.m. (EST) in Cleveland and will last 90 minutes.