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How British view US election: both Carter, Reagan are unpredictable

For the first time since he began watching US presidential elections in the early 1950s, Geoffrey Smith says he is "totally unsure" whom he would vote for -- if he had a vote.

The political columnist of The Times of London echos sentiments commonly held here: that the US election campaign offers a choice between an unknown whose directions are unpredictable and an incumbent who, ironically, is also seen as unpredictable.

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The British, who keep a much closer eye on international news than do most Americans, are eager watchers of other people's ballots. The recent elections in West Germany and Australia were widely followed and analyzed in the press here. But the event of the year is the American spectacular.

As a result, you can find an opinion on Reagan vs. Carter anywhere -- from the Oxford don who expressed "horror" at the thought of Reagan, to the London doorman who worried that English people only knew him through reruns of his westerns.

The reports that have come back have been frank, sometimes even nasty. The candidates are seen as flat and dull, the race as one between a retired movie star and a retired peanut farmer, and the issues as having received no new light at all. "There has been no lifting of the sights," writes Henry Brandon of The Sunday Times as he covers his ninth presidential campaign, "only a search for the chinks in the other's plastic armor."

The intensity of the coverage is not surprising. Britain retains an extremely close relationship with America. And Europeans in general are well aware of the crucial role the United States still plays in their own defense, foreign policy, and economic patterns.

These three matters, more than the personality of the two candidates, appear to cause the most serious worries here.

In the current resurgence of antinuclear protest here, one of the main defense issues is the SALT treaty. President Carter is seen as the man who muffed the opportunity to bring it into force. He is also faulted for his handling of the neutron bomb issue -- encouraging Chancellor Schmidt to pave the way for it in Europe, then reversing course.

But Mr. Reagan is seen as the more hawkish. And with nuclear cruise missiles under American command scheduled to be sited on British soil during the next presidency, some Britons worry about his readiness to involve his Western allies in war.

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Such an involvement, however, is as much a matter of foreign policy as of defense. And here, neither candidate is seen to be sure-footed. Mr. Carter's record has some much-noted flaws, ranging from symbolic blunders (sending his mother to President Tito's funeral) to more significant failures to grasp Europe's political ways (his awkward approaches to his allies over the Afghanistan invasion and over the Iranian embargo).

But Mr. Reagan's West Coast heritage is felt by some observers to cut him off from an understanding of Europe. His apparent rejection of SALT, and his vehemently pro-Israeli stance in the Mideast, run counter to currents now building up in Europe.

The third issue, economics, touches many Britons personally. US firms that make everything from corn flakes to oil filters here depend to some extent on such things as the tax rate in the US. In roughest terms, those who vote Labour support Mr. Carter, while Tories lean to Mr. Reagan.

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