Events in the Persian Gulf once again may be shaping the course of the American political campaign. One White House source said Sept. 24 that Mr. Carter might "be forced to wage his campaign from the Rose Garden," as he did when the Iranian hostage crisis kept him at home during the primaries.
"Right now," this sourse said, "the President still has a heavy schedule of travel coming up. Should the [Iran- Iraq] crisis continue to call for him to stay on the job here in Washington, you can be sure he will do so."
A presidential political adviser had this to say Sept. 24:
"The President isn't talking to his political advisers about this crisis. And he won't.
"He thinks what is happening in Iraq and Iran is truly important in terms of the free world. And he will be making his decisions on how best to deal with the crisis -- not with the domestic politics that could relate to the crisis."
Yet critics of the President in the camps of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson are charging that Carter already is playing politics with the crisis -- particularly by charging that Mr. Reagan's past comments show the GOP nominee might lead the nation into war if elected.
Reagan called the charge "unforgivable." And Reagan aide James Baker, talking to reporters over breakfast Sept. 24, added: "Carter's mean and nasty campaign won't be furthered by what he said about the issue being on the side of war or peace. Carter is now the issue. And we have the momentum."
The crisis is having this impact on the presidential campaign:
* It is further softening the Reagan forces toward agreeing to a one-on-one debate with Carter. Mr. Baker said Sept. 24 that "our position now is to look at the numbers in a week or two" and that then such a debate (excluding Anderson) might be agreed to.
In essence, Baker was saying that if Reagan moves down in the polls and Carter moves up, a Reagan-Carter collision on TV might come about. Baker said he did not think the figures would show such a Reagan slide, but he obviously was not closing the door on a one-on-one debate.
* The President stands to gain considerable public support if he is seen as acting "presidential" during the crisis.
If the President does gain such a lift in public opinion, he might choose to avoid any debates whatsoever on the grounds that he must give full time to problems abroad, as he did during the primary battles with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
At least initially, the sobering Iran-Iraq conflict will shore up the President's campaign, political observers are saying. The crisis "definitely helps Carter," one veteran president-watcher concludes.
During the primary period, the polls showed that voters liked the President's cool and restrained image. Now it seems possible that the voters willlike a president who is talking calmly and sounding detached as he calls for other nations, along with the US, to remain neutral.
At the same time, anxiety is growing in the Reagan camp that Carter has found his campaign "surprise," which some of Reagan's top people have been predicting. The Reagan forces are not charging that the current crisis is in any way contrived by the President. But they are definitely worried that he may have found an issue that could edge him ahead in what now is a neck-and-neck race.