How prospective release of the American hostages in Iran will affect the tight White House race has become the decisive question in the last hours of the presidential campaign.
Ronald Reagan went into the last weekend of the campaign with the electoral-vote system tilting obviously in his favor, despite a virtual tie in popular-vote projections. But Sunday's announcement by Tehran that the Majlis (parliament) had voted four conditions for the release, plus strong indications that there would probably be US-Iran negotiations on those terms, leaves everyone -- including the "experts" -- puzzled as to how US voters will be moved.
A "rally-round-the-flag" emotion could envelop the Carter incumbency enough to influence the outcome. In practical political terms, the hostage issue at least disrupts what some have seen as a glide-in to victory for the Republican which dated from his gains in the Oct. 28 debate. The hostage situation stirs up a new set of uncertainties that could work to Mr. Carter's advantage at the polls.
The hostage crisis brought Carter back from the campaign trail to the White House on Sunday. Ironically, it was from the White House a year ago that the President, too busy with his hostage vigil to campaign, watched Democratic rival Edward M. Kennedy's 2-to-1 edge in the polls waste away.
The hostage situation was one of two factors this past weekend which kept many analysts from calling the election for Reagan. The other was the chance that traditional Democrats would turn out in larger numbers than expected.
"The psychological tide was all Reagan," one analyst said. "Carter needs a big ratio of Democratic constituencies -- blacks, Jews, Southerners, labor. His support there isn't what it was in '76. And he needs big turnouts. Counting on big ratios and big turnouts is a high risk."
Every independent reading this weekend, not figuring-in the hostage flare-up at the end, had Reagan in position to win handily -- if not big, and Carter behind or in position for only a narrow victory at best.
West Coast pollster Mervin Field put Reagan in front in 26 states with 280 electoral votes -- 10 more than the 270 needed to win; Carter ahead in 15 states with 152 electoral votes; and 8 states with 114 votes in doubt. The New York Times called it Reagan 235, Carter 145, 158 in doubt. The Baltimore Sun said Reagan 217, Carter 158, 163 in doubt.