Were the cards stacked in Reagan's favor?

For all the participants in the presidential debate of 1980 - Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and the journalists who questioned them - the atmosphere in Cleveland was a pressure cooker of tension and emotion.

More than any other event of that tumultuous campaign, the debate would allow more than 100 million Americans to compare face to face the two contestants for the highest office in the land.

Telegrams and phone calls poured in to the panelists from eager special-interest groups, trying to plant questions that would serve their ends.

The caller who sticks in my memory pleaded that I ask both candidates what they would do to save the whales.

Through all this swirling confusion, the debate sponsor - the League of Women Voters - took enormous care to ensure both secrecy and fairness.

Neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan, for example, was allowed to take notes of any kind, not a scrap of paper, out to their podiums.

Had either man surreptitiously pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, eagle-eyed monitors of the league would have flashed a signal to Howard K. Smith , moderator of the debate. He, in turn, would have scolded the errant debater - either President or governor - and ordered him to put his notes away.

But did Reagan carry mental notes into that debate, based upon the now-famous Carter briefing book that Democrats claimed was purloined by the Reagan camp?

Did Reagan have a pretty fair idea of what language Carter might use to answer questions on various subjects?

Did the then-President of the United States, in short, tip his hand to his challenger without knowing it?

Reagan denies having seen the briefing book himself, a denial that Robert Strauss, a key Carter aide at the time, accepts at face value. But were Reagan's assistants, preparing him for the debate, able to frame answers that might effectively undercut what Carter had to say?

This reporter cannot know. But as a panelist, I was struck by the impression, as the debate progressed, that Carter sounded more and more defensive. His answers, to my questions at least, seemed evasive and imprecise, surprising in a man with a long-demonstrated grasp of detail.

During one of my questions to him, Carter frowned at me. Being frowned at by the President of the United States before a worldwide audience did nothing for my composure at the time.

I still do not know why he frowned. But his general attitude I attributed at the time to his having to defend a controversial presidential record, which Reagan did not have to do.

My own impression after the debate was that Reagan, for whatever complex of reasons, had clearly won. This impression was widely shared by analysts who agreed that the debate had been a climactic, possibly a watershed, event in the presidential campaign.

When the last question had been asked and before the television lights faded, Carter immediately left the stage, while Reagan came forward to shake hands with the panelists.

This might have given the impression to onlookers that Carter was stiff and reserved, in contrast to Reagan's geniality. In fact, President Carter was simply obeying the injunction of the League of Women Voters that both candidates leave the stage at once.

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