The question of which candidate -- Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter -- could cope with war threats without undue risk has been put in vivid terms by this week's presidential campaigning against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq conflict.
Mr. Carter helped make the point stark Sept. 22 -- just hours before the Mideast fighting broke out -- when he told Californians the election choice could be reduced to "whether we have peace or war," implying that his opponent, Mr. Reagan, was the more warprone.
But Carter's peace and war remarks, like his earlier racism and hatred charge , could make his trident campaign style an issue in the closing weeks of the race, say both Carter supporters and Reagan strategists.
Reagan respondend in Florida Sept. 23 to the war comparison in personal terms: "I think it is inconceivable that anyone -- and partcularly a president of the United States -- would imply . . . that any person in this country would want war. And that's what he's charging. and I think it is unforgivable."
He added later: "I have two sons. I have a grandson. I have known four wars in my life- time, and I think, like all of you, that world peace has got to be the principal aim of this nation."
Then, however, Reagan again put his peace hopes in a martial context. "World peace can be obtained only by maintaining the strenght that will keep any potential adversary from ever challenging this nation," he said.
The President appeared attuned to a basic question in the minds of Americans -- and alert to a potential Reagan Achilles' heel -- in stating the war/peace choice. And Reagan, too, seemed to have crafted his concept of "peace through security" with voter trends in view.
According to the National Opinion Research Center's 1980 survey of American attitudes, one of the most remarkable shifts in recent public opinion has occurred on the question of defense. From 1973 to 1976, a majority of Americans thought US defense spending levels were "about right." But by March of this year , almost two-thirds had come to feel the level of spending for defense is "too low."
An April survey by Yankelovich, Skelly & White showed 59 percent of the public "worried a lot" about the possibility of a world war.
NBC News surveys asking, "Is war for the US very likely in the next three years?" found 13 percent saying "very likely" in January 1978. But in January 1980 40 percent found war "very likely" -- or a tripling in two years.
"There's a greater public perception of war as possible," says Don Farree of the University of Connecticut's opinion data center. "It's not a fear shooting will start in the next five minutes, but a clear tendency to think the world is a more dangerous place -- and that a way to ensure peace is through defense spending."
Both candidates have carefully positioned themselves on the issue, Mr. Farree says. The two major political parties are tied in the public's assessment of their ability to maintain security and world peace, surveys show.
"In a Gallup poll early this summer, Carter's strongest marks were in foreign policy and in the handling of crisis situations," Farree said. Reagan was seen as better able to stand up to the Russians -- but with an attendant risk of leading the country into dangerous situations."
By happenstance, without anticipating the President's war/peace attacks, Reagan had prepared two major peace and security addresses for the next day's campaining in Pensacola, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La.
In Pensacola, he spoke of the "need to restore the margin of safety vital to ensure peace and to defend our values."
"Jimmy Carter's most serious failure has been in the area of national defense ," he told the crowd of 12,000 in a region of Florida that holds major military installations.
Reagan coined a new campaign phrase -- "secure freedom" -- later in his Southern campaign swing when he told Lousiana State University students in Baton Rouge: "If I were asked to put into a few words what I believe to be the vision which should direct America's destiny, I would say that for the rest of this century and into the 21st century, America should be a nation where freedom is secure -- a nation of secure freedom . . . .
"We need leadership that trusts freedom -- leadership that not only knows also is willing to let freedom work," he said.
"It is this vision of secure freedom which is the central idea of my campaign and will be the guiding principle upon which all programs and policies in my administration are based."