Liberty State Park, New Jersey
Ronald Reagan has stirred up his own verbal dust storms that have threatened to obscure his campaign before its official Labor Day start. But the pattern of Reagan "bloppers" is likely to hurt the Republican candicate only if he keeps stubbornly to defending his own views at points of controversy -- rather than carrying the attack to Jimmy Carter on basic issues like the economy -- say experienced political hands in Washington and key states.
Actually, many voters may agree with him on "official relations" with Taiwan, on calling Vietnam a "noble cause," and in his escalation of the current recession into a "depression," some analysts say. Or at worst the voters may think the controversy these comments stirred is irrelevant to the gut issues of the 1980 election.
Mr. Reagan took to the attack in a Car
Mr. Reagan took to the attack in a Carter-drubbing Labor Day speech before a New York harbor crowd: "After three years of neglect, the misery of unemployment , inflation, high taxes, dwindling earnings power, and inability to save -- after all this, American workers have now been discovered by this administration.
"Well, it won't work. It is cynical. It is political. And it is too late. The damage is done and every American family knows who did it."
This economy pitch is thought likely to be mr. Reagan's most effective weapon as he campaigns in coming weeks across the nation's industrial belt from the Jersey shore to Lake Michigan.
"most people here don't care whether it's two, three, or four Chinas," says an Ohio political observer. "The economy is still the issue. Ohio is still a Republican state. Carter carried it by only 11,000 votes in '76. I just don't see how Carter can win it again."
In the primaries, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy beat mr. Carter in Ohio's industrial cities of Akron, Lorain, and Celveland. And Mr. Reagan cuts into the religious fundamentalist vote in southern Ohio, which along with balck votes gave Carter his slim edge in 1976.
"Carter can't use the moral thing on Reagn he used on Kennedy," this Ohio observer says. "The issue here is change. The Republicans will say 'it's Carter's recession. It's Carter's hostages in Iran.' It's up and down on Carter."
In Illinois, another of the handful of most crucial states, the starting point for Reagan is much the same. Republican Gov. james R. Thompson has had to "explain" what Reagan really meant. But Reagan is still given the edge for reasons that have little to do with his outspoken remarks.
"Carter lost illinois in '76 starting 27 points ahead so he's not really that strong here," says an illinois political observer. "The divisions in the Democratic Party are even greater now under [Chicago Mayor Jane] Byrne. The Democrats' city base is dwindling. Carter's '76 strength was in the rural areas. They were angry over the Butz grain embargo. But the Baptists and rural fundamentalists now are strong for Reagan."
At Reagan headquarters, the official word is that any damage so far can be contained -- and the real race is just beginning.
"There's no panic over here," says joe Holmes, campaign spokesman, "over [ Reagan's] statements. Things are going along in an orderly fashion. The campaign's just coming together, with the kickoff Labor Day at Ellis island."
"It's our first two-plane trip," Mr. Holmes said of the opening Reagan swing from a New Jersey park overlooking Ellis island, to Detroit where Labor Day rallies in Cadillac Square have usually been the site of Democratic presidential kickoffs. The two-plane reference indicates the national news media also are just getting their full presidential campaign coverage under way.
Reagan strategists say they've seen "no significant movement" in the dozen states they've been polling closely since the "two-Chinas brouhaha started." But they concede the string of Reagan remarks cannot be allowed to continue into the post-Labor Day campaign.
"if Reagan goes down in the polls, the China matter won't be the reason," says I. A. Lewis, a national pollster. "Remember two or three weeks ago, everyboy thought 'Billygate' would hurt Carter.
"The first debate, if it's held, will be the first significant event of the fall campaign.
"You would be surprised," Mr. Lewis says. "The people don't really know yet who Ronald Reagan is at this stage. Four years ago when we began our Labor Day poll, you should have heard the vagueness come over people's voices when the interviews started. They had no idea who Jimmy Carter was. People just haven't gotten to thinking about the election until after Labor Day."