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The Baltimore duet

Inasmuch as John Anderson seemed to have more hanging on the Baltimore presidential debate, he was probably the biggest winner in terms of immediate political gain. Had he faltered in this media performance, it is doubtful he could have carried on a viable political campaign. As it was, he emerged as a creditable challenger in the 1980 election and can now be expected to pursue the presidential prize with renewed vigor and zest. He cannot but be pleased with the results

Which is not to say that the "won" the debate. In the long run Mr. Reagan may be the real winner. For one thing, Mr. Anderson's political philosophy, with its stress on fiscal conservatism coupled, with government help for such problems as distressed cities and black unemployment, makes him seem more an alternative to President Carter than to Ronald Reagan. Those who support or lean to Mr. Reagan's brand of get-government-off-our-backs approach to economics and energy were not likely to have been swayed by Mr. Anderson's arguments. Carter supporters, however, may be taking another look. This, it might be added , is what Mr. Reagan hopes.

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Secondly, Mr. Reagan handled himself adroitely. We felt Mr. Anderson had the edge in the clarity and forthrightness of his answers, and in marshalling facts to support his positions. But Mr. Reagan deftly cited just enough statistics to convey a knowledge of his subject without sounding pedantic. His amiability and self-assurance weighed favorably in comparison with Mr. Anderson's overearnestness and tendency to lecture. He also gained, we felt, in conveying a hopeful picture of the future -- a feeling that, whatever the problems, Americans can cope with them -- as contrasted with a rather heavy sense of "we must pull in our belts and sacrifice" which was left by Mr. Anderson. Americans probably want to know the truth about their condition but with not quite so much unalleviated gravity.

Whether the format permitted either man to come across as a national leader is another matter. The debate brought to light the two men's views and the differences between them. But these had already been known, and the contenders did little more than safely reiterate passages from their stock campaign speeches. The questions were seldom frontally addressed. The debate therefore turned out rather lackluster, reaching a sense of genuine engagement only when the sensitive question of church and state was raised. To this both candidates responded with commendable candor, giving voters something to think about in a year when religion and politics have become unsually intertwined.

Overall, we come to a conclusion we have drawn before, and that is that the format of the presidential debates, as now constituted, does not really lends itself to measuring leadership qualities. The contenders need to debate each other directly to show how they perform under pressure, for instance, instead of merely responding to questions from reporters. The depth of their knowledge and arguments, moreover, can come to light only if more time is given to a single question and each is repeatedly challenged and counter-challenged by the other on specific points.

Mr. Reagan, for instance, has yet to be pinned down on how his reliance on future oil exploration will actually affect production levels in the US, or where he would put the MX missile if in fact he does not want it located in the Western regions, or why tax incentives to business to develop run-down urban areas should not be considered a government subsidy.

Mr. Anderson, for his part, ought to be pressed on his proposals for multi-billion-dollar urban funds in light of some successful programs already underway in the nation's cities, and on his 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. Would the latter really generate enough money to cut social security taxes by half, and what about Mr. Reagan's argument that this would simply take money out of people's pockets and give it back again?

As for Mr. Carter, however savvy politically his absence may turn out to be, he also needs to be pressed on specific matters of substance and on his record -- indeed, all the more so since he chose not to open himself to the public questioning faced by his opponents.

In sum, the genial Baltimore confrontation is not likely to make or break either candidate. At this point, all the candidates need to demonstrate they have more of the stuff of presidential leadership than now seems apparent.

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