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Debates, elections - and clam dip

Evidently, on one of his jaunts to or from the helicopter, President Ronald Reagan decided to debate presidential candidate Walter Mondale. He has been trying to figure out why he decided to do it ever since.

One could argue that any popular president, ahead in the national polls by nearly 20 points, who offers his opponent a nationwide television opportunity to take the presidency away from him, may be pushing all the wrong buttons in his elevator.

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It calls that old saying to mind: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

If there had never been any debates on television, people could have survived just as well.

Most viewers don't like their favorite programs, with the car chase and shootout, displaced by a debate. Especially when it is a case of trying to digest unemployment statistics along with potato chips spread with clam dip.

But now that debates have been programmed as if they were a Super Bowl game, a sort of confusion sets in. Unlike at a football game, no one seems absolutely sure who won. So, as usual, someone takes a poll.

Sober-eyed Walter Mondale, who for obvious reasons has been rather atheistic where polls are concerned, is now a born-again poll-believer. In his recent speeches he even exudes a mild effervescence, which in Mr. Mondale's repertoire constitutes wild, political hysteria. A sort of grudging attitude is going around that he won the first debate.

Does winning a debate mean winning an election?

I took a poll down at the town tennis courts, and the average answer was something like this: ''Mr. Mondale made stronger points, but I'm going to vote for Reagan anyway.''

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Supposedly, one has to be rich to vote for Reagan, but since there aren't that many rich people, there have to be other peculiar reasons.

Maybe politics is not the art of the possible, but the improbable. Take President Eisenhower. Almost anyone could beat him in a debate. Certainly Adlai Stevenson could. But then, who would vote for a smart debater instead of good ol' Ike?

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