Reagan policy style: test public opinion, but guide it if necessary; Reagan had election-eve hostage speech ready

It was a campaign within a campaign -- an elaborately detailed "just in case" contingency plan that would have seen a massive Reagan effort rolled out if President Carter had somehow succeeded in freeing the 52 American hostages before the Nov. 4 election.

A speech had been prepared and a television studio in San Diego reserved for election eve so that, if necessary, Ronald Reagan could go live before a national audience and charge that Mr. Carter had manipulated the hostage crisis for his own political gain.

Plotted in mid-October, when speculation about a pre-election hostage release began to mount, the alternate campaign reflected the concern of Reagan strategists that the return of the hostages could swing 10 percentage points to Carter's share of the vote -- enough to carry the election, Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin told reporters at a recent breakfast meeting.

"We tried to preempt the 'October surprise' by talking about it," Mr. Wirthlin said, using the term the Reagan camp gave to the possibility of any last-minute revelations about the hostage situation.

"We increased the degree of cynicism [on the part of the voters] about the release," he said.

Wirthlin disclosed that the Reagan campaign conducted 3,000 to 5,000 telephone interviews across the country every night during the final week of the campaign.

By the morning of Sunday, Nov. 2 -- just two days before the election -- Wirthlin said strategists determined the hostages would have no impact on the outcome of the election and "We put our contingency plan o n the shelf. . .."

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