What does recent Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan, Cuba, Africa, and elsewhere suggest about the Soviet Union's global intentions? The views of the 10 men competing for the US presidency -- one of whom is likely to be directing US foreign policy a year from now -- reveal a broadly similar perception of Soviet objectives.
But there are illuminating differences of tone and emphasis, and an occasional novel theory. Some of the candidates have addressed the topic in detailed speeches and issue papers; a few others have barely touched on it.
President Carter and all those vying for his job whose opinions could be ascertained share a general view that the Soviet Union now is reaching out militarily.
The President, according to his expanded State of the Union message last month, sees the Soviets as having "enhanced their capability for projecting military force around the world directly or through the use of proxies."
His rivals say much the same thing -- some more cataclysmically, others more guardedly.
The most sweeping interpretation of Soviet objectives comes from two Republican former governors. Former California governor Ronald Reagan sees the Soviet Union as "a hostile, imperial power whose ambitions extend to the ends of the earth." Former Texas governor John Connally says the Soviets "propose to achieve domination in the world."
Two GOP senators, minority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Robert Dole of Kansas, take a more measured view. Their spokesmen use exactly the same word in describing what they believe the Soviets are up to: "probing" -- along their own borders and wherever else they sense vulnerability.
The President's chief Democratic challenger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, characterizes recent Soviet moves in similar terms, calling them "adventurism" and "expansionism."
Two specific Soviet objectives are suggested by the President and several of his rivals: access to energy resources, particularly those in the Middle East, and extension of its sea power.
Warning of the energy threat, Mr. Carter says "political intimidation" in the Middle East might enable the Soviet Union to "control an area of vital strategic and economic significance to the survival of Western Europe, the Far East, and, ultimately, the United States."
It is a view shared by Republican candidates across the ideological spectrum, from outspoken conservatives such as Mr. Reagan and Mr. Connally to the liberal Rep. John Anderson of Illinois.
The oil motive is advocated perhaps most strongly by former Texas governor Connally.
"We're engaged now in a battle with the Soviet Union for the resources of the world . . .," he claims. "The Soviets are trying to separate us from our friends and allies and the resources of Central and South America . . . [and] the resources of much of Africa."
Both Mr. Connally and fellow Republican George Bush cite forecasts by the Central Intelligence Agency (which Mr. Bush once headed) that the Soviet Union soon will need to begin importing oil.
"I think the Soviet leadership today is driven by the knowledge that they themselves will have a shortfall of energy in the '80s," says Mr. Bush.
Soviet naval ambitions are mentioned by fewer candidates.
Mr. Carter, for one, notes that the invasion of Afghanistan "has brought the Soviet Union within striking distance of the Indian Ocean and even the Persian Gulf."
Two of his GOP foes see such an objective as a dream the Russians have harbored for centuries. Mr. Bush says they have sought access to the warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf since the czars. Mr. Connally, in various speeches, has traced back such ambitions to the days of Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1796).
Another possible motive for Soviet actions is offered by Mr. Bush. Chinese leaders, says this onetime top US envoy in Peking, are convinced the Soviets are trying to encircle China.
Where the candidates part company, however, is on the question of whether recent Soviet military moves signal a pivotal change of policy in Moscow -- or, indeed, any change of policy at all.
Mr. Carter indicates the magnitude of the change that he sees by saying "the implications" of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan alone "could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War."
The more conservative of his Republican challengers counter that Soviet global ambitions have not changed -- only the President's belated awareness of them. Says an aide of Rep. Philip Crane of Illinois: "Soviet intentions have been there all along for anyone to see."
Others claim the Carter administration has overblown the significance of the Afghan invasion. Senators Kennedy and Dole, who find themselves on opposite sides of most issues, both contend the incursion was only the culmination of decades of increasing Soviet influence over its troubled neighbor.
"Exaggeration and hyperbole," Senator Kennedy says, "are the enemies of sensible foreign policy."
Perhaps the strongest doubts that the Soviets are abandoning a policy of detente to resume the cold war come from Representative Anderson.
At some point, he says through a spokesman, the Soviets "will re-extend the olive branch." He advises the US government to tone down its rhetoric and try to recreate conditions that show the Soviets they have more to gain by cooperation than aggression.
Senator Kennedy, says an issues aide, avoids trying to interpret Soviet motives. California Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. is reported by his staff as not having specifically addressed the issue.