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Reagan camp's task: regain the 'big mo'

Within Reagan camp, lights are burning late. Research into public opinion is telling Reagan advisers that the campaign has stalled. President Carter has gained the momentum. The question: What to do next?

One definite possibility is that Mr. Reagan will agree to a one-to-one debate with the President.

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The GOP challenger also may try to seize the initiative by telling voters more clearly the kind of government he would bring to Washington. The Reagan announcement Oct. 14 that, if elected, he would appoint a woman to the US Supreme Court may be followed by further, more specific disclosures of individuals who would be included in his presidential inner circle.

Monitor conversations with top Reagan advisers have produced admissions that they know their candidate has been sitting on his lead and that he must take some risks now if he is to regain the momentum.

John Sears, a former top Reagan strategist who is familiar with the current Reagan team and its thinking, now sees a strong possibility that the candidate will participate in a debate.

"Just agreeing to debate may well help Reagan," Mr. Sears says. "And in the days between now and the debate the prospect of this TV encounter might tend to focus attention on both candidates and thereby take some of the spotlight off the President."

The mood in the higher reaches of the Reagan campaign is not one of panic. the Reagan polls continue to show the candidate with a sizable edge in the state-by-state electoral vote count.

But the polls also show this lead threatened by the surging Carter, particularly in the big states where the electoral vote lead could be quickly lost by a change in several key outcomes.

Reagan was once being told that he was well ahead in such states as Pennsylvania and Ohio; now he learns that Carter is moving in fats. He has seen an even race in New York State turn heavily to Carter. Texas, too, no longer seems safe. Illinois may be going to Carter.

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The Reagan people also believe that if they are to win they must come into the final week to 10 days of the campaign with at least a 5 percentage point lead over Carter.

Otherwise, they believe, an incumbent president, through the inevitable spotlight on his office and the use of political perks, would likely be able to come from behind and win.

One Reagan adviser puts the problem this way: "We aren't panicking. Not by a long shot. But we can see that in recent weeks we have stalled a bit. now we're preparing for injecting new life in the campaign. We're getting ready for the stretch drive."

But reporters tapping the Reagan inner circle do see a somber mood -- a striking contrast to the optimism that prevailed there only 10 days ago.

The Reagan people concede that Carter has been able in recent days to woo many liberal Democracy back to his candidacy.

They admit that by using hyperbole in charging Reagan with "hawkishness," the President has persuaded many voters that he would be the more likely of the two to keep his cool in an international crisis.

So now the Reagan camp's worry is that their man peaked too soon.

Sears, in talking with reporters over breakfast Oct. 15, assessed the race this way:

"Carter is in the better position to win now. The race itself now is about even. But Carter may make a mistake. He has never been known to do everything right for any sustained three-week period."

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