Ronald Reagan's campaign to "restore America's greatness" was put to the test yesterday in Evelyn Bandemer's spacious living room in the tiny Montgomery County suburb of Olney.
At precisely 1 p.m., she and her husband and eight guests turned on a color television to watch Reagan's first nationwide broadcast since the national convention -- the kickoff of the Republican Party's grass-roots "Commitment '80" campaign.
At 175 other homes in Maryland and in thousands around the country, Reagan supporters held similar get-togethers intended to recruit a huge "volunteer army" and sweep Republicans into office Nov. 4.
When the broadcast began, the Bandemers' sofas and chairs held six committed Reagan supporters: two apathetic, registered Republicans; a disillusioned, registered Democrat, and a down-the-middle undecided voter.
When it was over, the score hadn't changed.
"I don't think it addressed the real problems in this country," said Harry Bandemer, who remains steadfastly undecided despite his wife's dogged attempts to convert him to the Reagan fold. "I'd like to see some politicians call on Americans to make sacrifices, because that's what we're in for."
"Oh Harry, why don't you go play golf?" sneered Evelyn Bandemer, who steadily attacked her husband's neutrality throughout the afternoon.
She was not discouraged to find her friends and husband unchanged by the broadcast, she said. It was mainly a "rally-around speech. Wait for the debates. Then you'll hear the issues."
Such is the positivism of a grassroots campaigner. Evelyn Bandemer, 59, has been an active Republican trooper since 1968 when she went to work for Larry Hogan, now Prince George's county executive in his successful congressional bid. "Politics is like coffee," she said as she waited for her guests to arrive and chatted with co-hostess Phoebe Nerdahl.
This year, Bandemer was going to sit out the campaign; she was tired.
But duty called. A neighbor who had planned to give the Commitment '80 party had to cancel. Another woman volunteered to fill in, but she didn't have a color television, Bandemer explained.
"I had no choice. We had to have this party," Bandemer said.
Her party differed slightly from the prescribed Republican game plan. Instead of inviting people who would be working in the Reagan campaign, she and Nerdahl asked neighbors with varying degrees of commitment.
Throughout the broadcast, everyone watched closely. Those who smoked put out their cigarettes. Sue Willmore, an elementary school teacher, took a few notes. Tony Navarra, a branch sales manager for Xerox and committed Reagan man, nodded his head when Reagan said Americans' spending power had declined since 1976. Otherwise, no one moved or said a word until Reagan closed: "Give me your hand and let us set forth."
With that, Nerdahl, who calls Reagan the "only hope we have," clapped her hands and exclaimed: "I thought he was great."
Reactions to the broadcast varied directly with the degree of commitment each viewer had toward Reagan. Those sold on his philosophy praised him. Those who plan to vote for him, but differ with him on certain issues, called the broadcast "effective" but lacking in substance. And the undecided voters said they got no help making up their minds by listening for 30 minutes to Reagan, vice presidential nominee George Bush and Republican Party chief Bill Brock.
The neighbors stayed for about half an hour after the broadcast to talk politics in the Bandemers' living room, eating doughnuts and deviled eggs and sipping coffee from silverlined white cups. All of them live near the Bandemers' modern, ranch-style home about 25 miles north of Washington.
They all described themselves as middle and upper income families; none called themselves rich. All said they feel the economy can't stand another four years of Jimmy Carter.
Even though all but two of the neighbors described themselves as Reagan supporters, their views varied widely. Sue Wilhare, who supported Bush in the primary, said she does not share Reagan's anti-abortion stand but feels "that is not the kind of issue that is going to affect my daily life. I'm strongly for him." Sharon Navarra, a registered Democrat who supported Jerry Brown in the Maryland primary, said she came over to Reagan because "we need a conservative to control this economy."
Bandemer and Nerdahl said their views square closely with Reagan's. The two women, both dressed casually in polyester pants and overblouses, talked for half an hour before the broadcast about America's declining world stature and the growing federal bureaucracy.
"My 84-year-old mother is going to vote for Reagan," Bandemer said. "She told me she couldn't live four more years under Carter."
The undecided voters at the gathering said they aren't sure what will help them pick between Carter, Reagan and Independent John Anderson. Maybe the arguments of Bandemer and Nerdahl will convince them, and maybe future statements from the candidates. But the Saturday broadcast didn't help, they said.
"I'm still just as undecided as I was when I came here," said Greta Reynolds, 50, a registered Democrat who said she is disillusioned with Carter. "It's the same old rhetoric over and over, from both parties."