Interviews by Monitor staff writers across the United States after Sunday night's final presidential debate indicated that people's opinions about who won the debates may have little relation to their decisions on whom to vote for.
In the Monitor's random interviews, people who were leaning toward one of the candidates tended to have their inclinations reinforced by the debates. Those interviewed who were genuinely undecided tended to remain so - still waiting for that one turn of events or insightful moment to help make up their minds.
On Boston Common, where free expression has been a tradition since colonial times, reaction the morning after to the latest televised Reagan-Mondale debate was generally bland.
In a random sampling of men and women strolling across the historic parkland, it was found that only slightly more than one-third watched the Sunday evening program, and most of those who did assessed the performances of the two presidential candidates as ''pretty even.'' There was little suggestion it had either won or cost many votes.
''I was leaning toward Reagan but was not quite sure,'' said Rick Santachelli , a 24-year-old commercial artist. He said he now ''definitely will be for Reagan.''
Thelma Starzak, a middle-aged bookkeeper, asserting that ''politicians never impress me,'' nevertheless said the debate helped her decide. In her case, ''it will be Mondale.'' She praised the former vice-president for ''his candor.''
Like most of those interviewed, she rated Ronald Reagan's Oct. 21 debate performance as better than the one on Oct. 7.
Robert Stratton, a 37-year-old social worker, made it clear that his preference for Reagan was reinforced by the latest debate. The Mondale candidacy , he contends ''is weaker because of his running mate, not because of who she is but because she is a woman.''
More favorable reaction to Reagan came from younger peole than from senior citizens. Support for Mondale was greater among those over 30.
Albert Tenen, a 92-year-old retired plasterer from Everett, Mass., and lifelong Democrat, declared he doubts the President ''could have said anything that would change my vote from Mondale.''
Another retiree, Tim O'Neil of the Boston, said watching the debate made him ''more convinced than before Reagan is my man.'' The retired hotel worker said he particularly likes Vice-President George Bush, suggesting that he ''would be my choice for the next president.''
In New York City, with a large Democratic majority, an informal survey after the Oct. 21 Mondale-Reagan debate seemed to show that Mr. Mondale had the overall edge. Voters with their minds made up before the debates said their opinions had simply been strengthened.
But it was the undecided vote that both candidates hoped to capture - like Brooks Robertson, who works for a Manhattan corporation. He said he was leaning toward Reagan before the debates, but now will probably vote for Mondale.
''I think the second debate was closer than the first, but I give Mondale the edge in both,'' said Mr. Robertson, a lifelong Democrat. He said he also felt Geraldine Ferraro did better than Vice-President George Bush in their debate.
Gordon Travers, a Wall Street lawyer and a Republican, said the debates caused him to reconsider his intent to vote for Reagan. It was ''kind of scary'' to see the President ''drifting around'' in response to questions, he said. But he still expects to vote for Reagan.
Most people interviewed said the debates were important, but most thought the format should be changed to allow more direct contact between the candidates, and perhaps some questions from the audience.
Not everyone was glued to his television set for the debates. ''I am very sorry I can't say anything about last night's debate,'' said a secretary on her way to work in Manhattan. ''My husband had to watch the hockey game.''
If the young professionals of Washington, D.C., are any guide, the presidential debates served to confirm voters' previously held convictions.
There are a lot of ''yuppies'' in the capital. They tend to be highly partisan, given the fact that politics is a more popular spectator sport here than football. And when analyzing Sunday night's final political contest, a number of them first mentioned the moments that made their candidate look good.
''The President did much better,'' said one Republican woman, an assistant to the president of a large trade association. ''He seemed awake - although it's awful that that's the standard he had to live up to. I thought his line about the age thing was wonderful.''
Mondale spoke well, but looked tired, said this GOP adherent.
On the other hand, a young Democrat, editor of a chemical newsletter, said the portion of the debate that made the most impression on him was President Reagan's rambling summation. ''Couldn't the guy memorize a closing statement? There's no excuse for getting cut off,'' he said.
A highly unscientific survey of undecided D.C. yuppies showed them leaning to Reagan after the second debate. ''He seemed competent. I was really relieved,'' said one lobbyist.
The first debate on Oct. 7, said this lobbyist, pushed her into the Mondale camp. Sunday's competition on foreign policy issues changed her mind. ''Reagan showed more of what I think it takes to deal with the Soviets,'' she said.
In the deep South, where President Reagan leads in every state, interviews with several people who plan to vote Nov. 6 indicate the debates did little to change their opinions. One person who viewed the so-called debates suggested a different format in 1988.
Reagan supporter Bob Pinner, an Atlanta accountant interviewed at a local shopping center, reached into his pocket and drew out some dollar bills held together by a money clip. ''I'm gonna do like most Americans; I'm gonna vote my pocketbook,'' he said. The debates did not change his mind, he said.
In Durant, Miss., David Huntley, a disabled carpenter and head of a very low-income family, said the debates had not affected his support for Mondale. ''Reagan said people are better off now than (under) Carter. But that's not true. He (Reagan) made them (the poor) poorer than they were before.'' Atlantan Trudy Williams, who is retired from the dry cleaning business, was having second thoughts. She said she fell asleep during Sunday's debate, but of what she saw she said: ''It seemed like Mondale was getting Reagan pretty good. I am undecided. I was for Reagan.'' Now, she said: ''I don't know.''
Danny Feig, an Atlanta carpenter whose first choice was Gary Hart, had been simply anti-Reagan. As a result of the debates he is ''much stronger for Mondale.'' He accuses Reagan of talking of ending the nuclear arms race without doing anything about it. But he worries that Mondale appears to be lessening his support for a nuclear freeze. Mr. Feig was ''embarrassed'' with George Bush's performance in the vice-presidential debate, accusing Mr. Bush of ''rambling without presenting any facts.'' He saw Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro as ''sharp, precise, clear, and strong.''
Reagan supporter Danny Gainin Jr., a shoe repairman in DeLand, Fla., would prefer 10- to 15-minute responses on just a few major questions, with no rebuttals. The back and forth rebutals are confusing, and short answers deprive viewers of the candidates' full views, he said.
The presidential debates only served to confirm preconceived opinions about the candidates for a handful of voters polled in three Western states.
''They reinforced my beliefs about the Reagan administration,'' said Republican William Pinevich, a San Francisco auto repair-shop owner. Debate points mattered little to Mr. Pinevich, who said the substance of his support for Reagan is based on his performance in office. The economy is better today and ''the buildup of the national defense builds the morale of the country,'' he observed of Reagan administration policies.
Although Reagan was perceived to have lost the first debate, Pinevich viewed the incumbent favorably: ''He stammered and that was overplayed by the press. Sometimes he's at a loss for words because of his sincerity about an issue.''
''Reagan floundered too much and Mondale's experience in government showed through,'' observed Linda Deright, a Seattle gourmet-foods marketer who said her support for Mondale has not wavered. Though the Mondale-Reagan debates were rehashes of old material, she said, the vice-presidential debate ''enthused me.'' Mrs. Ferraro won, Ms. Deright said, but her style was muzzled. ''I wish she was more feisty (in the debate); that's what's appealing to me.''
''One thing that bothers me is that a debate should determine who's president ,'' complained David Owen, a Salt Lake City car salesman who said he won't vote for either candidate. He didn't see a clear-cut winner in any of the debates, Mr. Owen said, adding that the ''rhetoric of the two parties is different, but not their actions.'' He said he has seen no difference in the course of government under either party in the past few decades, and the debates didn't convince him of any differences between the candidates.
Oklahoma farmer Lyman Knapp left Kansas City, site of Sunday's final presidential debate, with two distinct impressions. He was buoyed by the tractorcade that he and some 200 farmers held over the weekend to draw attention to farming's credit crisis. But he was disappointed with the debate itself, where neither agriculture nor its foreign policy implications was discussed.
In 1980 ''I voted for the President (Reagan) and I've had as great a disappointment as I've ever had,'' said Mr. Knapp, head of the Oklahoma branch of the American Agriculture Movement Inc., which sponsored the tractorcade. But Mondale hasn't been any better, he said, failing to address in specifics the farm credit crunch. So far, ''us old boys in the country don't have a candidate.''
The city of Chicago appears to have a hard time deciding, too.''It was not helpful at all,'' said Mohammad Ahmad of the three debates. But ''that's all we have right now.'' Mr. Ahmad, a financial analyst, has not yet made up his mind.
''I'm going through the decision process right now,'' said one Chicago woman who found the debates helpful, but not decisive. ''It just reinforces some of the (former impressions).''
Many didn't watch the final debate, saying they found it too dull or unrealistic a format. ''It's pretty much a canned presentation,'' said one young woman who did not watch any of the debates.
Others had already made up their minds.
Debates are ''better than what you read in the newspapers. You can see 'em and actually listen to 'em,'' said Alfred Daniels, washing the windows of a downtown Burger King with a squeegee. Mr. Daniels found the vice-presidential debate he watched somewhat helpful, but already had planned to vote Democratic.
''I really don't know'' whether debates were helpful, said one woman in advertising who decided not to watch them. ''Reagan - I think he's done a fairly good job.''
''I liked Mondale a lot better than Reagan,'' said Lashawn Doss, a second-year student at Loop College in Chicago. But ''my mind was pretty much made up.''
She said she will vote for Mondale because Reagan policies cut her scholarship to Northern Illinois University last January, forcing her to pay cash to attend Loop College.
''I have a real problem with Reagan's view of the world,'' said Tom Cheyney, a young editor for a newswire and former Peace Corpsman in Zaire. A registered independent not sure whether he will vote for Mondale or a third-party candidate , Mr. Cheyney said Reagan sees the world in simplified, black-and-white terms.
The most clear-cut impression Cheyney took from the three debates this month was from the first one: that Mondale could, after all, be presidential, and that he had a sense of humor. ''That was one thing that bothered me about Carter'' - no humor.
Before this month's debates, said travel agent Jo Ann Williams, ''I thought Mondale was a real wimp.'' But he came across strong and capable in both match-ups, especially the second one this past weekend, she commented. He was more tense, she observed, but also more genuine.
Ms. Williams, who is black and usually votes Democratic for president, said she was most concerned that Reagan is too much ''a lightweight mentally'' to run the country. ''When Reagan speaks to me, he speaks in a language I can understand,'' said Linda Piro, a secretary and young grandmother. She described herself as ''definitely a Republican,'' and said she was bothered by Reagan's rambling and pausing in his closing statement Sunday night but that it was otherwise a strong performance. Ms. Ferraro, she said, is probably not experienced enough for the White House.