Mid-Campaign Assessment; Reagan could coast to win, but workers wonder
As the final month of the presidential election campaign nears, Ronald Reagan's workers see their candidate poised like a glider at the apex of its flight -- with the height to coast the distance to a close victory on Nov. 4.
The Republican has a 2-to-1 edge in electoral votes, according to most current soundings, with a third of the state contests in doubt. The post-Democratic convention lift for Jimmy Carter in national polls has stalled, with Mr. Reagan opening a slight lead since the Baltimore debate between him and John Anderson.
The political air appears relatively stable at the midpoint of the fall campaign, with five weeks to go.
Mr. Anderson's independent, "national unity" candidacy seems to have hit a plateau. The latest NBC-Associated Press poll has him at 13 percent, with Reagan 42 and Carter 33 -- about where the trio stood after the mid-August Democratic convention. A CBS-New York Times poll, however, indicates that Anderson had slipped to 9 percent by the time of the Sept. 21 Baltimore debate. This is about the range the Reagan and Carter camps are figuring for Anderson on Nov. 4.
There are Reagan campaign workers who openly worry that the prevailing coast-in strategy is too risky. The apparent electoral calm, they say, is deceiving.
The stand-pat stance reflected in not debating Mr. Carter, in not taking out after the incumbent boldly, gives the President too much room to maneuver, they feel.
These Reagan backers fear the Iran-Iraq war could do to their candidate what the hostage seizure did to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's soaring hopes last November: block him off the evening news and front pages, yielding the prime news media attention to the White House and the crisis.
Mr. Reagan, they contend, could soon find hmself running against the office of the presidency, and not against the Georgia Democrat who holds it.
One Reagan worker critical of the play-it-safe strategy which the candidate has adopted remarked: "If, two weeks from now, we're even in the [projected] electoral college [vote], and if this Iran-Iraq thing goes any further, Reagan will have to debate. But will Carter then debate him?"
". . . Carter can slip or do bold things between now and the election and still recover. But if it's Oct. 15 or Oct. 22 and you're slipping, what does Reagan do?
"Two out of five voters still don't really know who Reagan is. What makes soft support move to the guy making no mistakes? Nothing."
Another Reagan supporter says, "The economy has not become the issue. We have not shown the voter yet the reason to vote for Ronald Reagan. And there are just five weeks left.
"We're convinced Carter is going to do something in a couple of weeks, or some event will save him from having to do something: an oil cutoff, hostages return, a peacemaker roll in the Middle East.
"The election is not set now. It's going to move some way. What is going to make it move our way?"
The debate over Reagan strategy is being pressed at the top levels of his staff, with some of his long-time California aides siding with those who want a more activist effort.
Apart from this debate, however, the Reagan campaign itself has been working well. On the road, the candidate's speeches effectively touch on local issues that play well in the targeted region, and he has been getting his message across to a national audience on issues like defense. He has moderated his image.
The Republican's give-and-take with his chief opponent -- over the debates and Carter's racism and warmongering charges -- has been conducted with greater finesse, Reagan's handlers feel. For three weeks, or since his Labor Day Ku Klux Klan gaffe, the Republican has avoided glaring errors.
The apparent Reagan debate strategy is to let another weeek or two run by before deciding whether to debate Carter, abandoning the Republican candidate's commitment to either a prior Anderson-Carter-Reagan debate or a round-robin of two-man debates, both of which the President has rejected.
A consensus among Washington analysts holds that the election will be extremely close and could be decided in the final 72 hours. The candidate with the edge in the polls going into the final weekend could lose it, with a false sense of security causing a last-minute lapse in support or fear of loss generating a counter rise in support for the looming loser.
"In the last 78 or 42 hours, Anderson's support will drop, if not before that ," says a Reagan strategist. "Nine or 10 percent for Anderson may be enough to do it for Reagan. But it's risky for Reagan to wait for that. That's letting John Anderson and everyone else direct your campaign. A bold plan is needed, including a debate scenario, an aggressive combination of ads, a new vision of where the campaign's heading."
In the Anderson camp there is disappointment the Baltimore debate did not provide the kind of lift hoped for by his supporters.