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.
To pull off what now would be called an upset, Carter would have to win a sizable majority of the doubtful states plus one or two others considered fairly certainly in the Reagan column. Tossup states include Oregon, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Alabama. In many of these states, Reagan had the edge before the President hastened back to Washington early Sunday morning as the hostage situation took a major turn.
Carter strategists had long figured that a close race at election day would help rouse reluctant Carter votes, as news of tight primary contests had helped against Senator Kennedy. But they had not counted on Reagan's lift after the debate, putting the Republican ahead, according to GOP surveys, in crucial states like Illinois (by six points), Michigan (by five), and Ohio (by three).
Post-debate polls for the Washington Post showed Reagan slightly ahead in seven of the eight key states: Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, and Michigan. He trailed Carter only in New York.
Given the often-dashed hopes of the year-long hostage issue, many observers see the President's confronting the "supreme risk" of his political career if he has to venture negotiations with the Iranians just two days before the election.
Even if some or all of the hostages are released, and he is re- elected, Carter faces the prospect of criticism later on that the release was taken advantage of, if not engineered, for election timing. Some Democrats think that , to head this off, the President should declare the hostages a neutral factor in the election, rather than link his fortunes to them. He should explicitly base his last-hour appeal on the broader issues of foreign and domestic policy, and counsel voters to vote accordingly, they say.
Their fear is that a Carter victory linked to the hostage release could deepen the distrust of Washington officialdom, reawaken memories of Vietnam and Watergate presidential deception, and make the President's task of governing in a second term all the more difficult. Looking ahead to 1984, some Democratic leaders say they would have preferred this election to run its course, win or lose, without further intrusion by the hostage issue.
Public opinion may agree. "Carter would deserve no credit if the hostages come home," says an Ohio voter said Sunday, speaking as if annoyed that Iranian events had seized US attention again. "It's a distraction. The poor [hostage] families. It's hard enough figuring out what this election is all about."