Chastened but chipper after his lesson from Illinois votes Tuesday on elephantine Republican loyalties, John B. Anderson insisted today that he still intends to "peel Ronald Reagan's fingers away from his grip on the nomination, one by one."
In a hard, dawn to midnight day of campaigning through Wisconsin, he repeatedly said a flat "no" to suggestions from some supporters that he strike off on a third-party candidacy which many believe would be more congenial to his "new ideas."
Nonetheless, the possibility of a third-party candidacy is becoming a factor in the Anderson campaign -- if only because it is so much the currency of persistent political gossip.
Anderson's staff believe he made a serious error in a debate last week when he let himself be "sucked into" a personal set-to with Ronald Reagan over party loyalty. Anderson has since moved back toward the kind of pugnacious issue talk that first entranced the media and leap-frogged him over George Bush to nip at Reagan's heels.
"The campaign itself forgot the 'Anderson Difference,'" said one staff aide, referring to the candidate's well-publicized slogan.
In a meeting with the editorial board of the Capital Times, discussing his own "draconian budget policies" Anderson accused President Carter of "plotting a recession" that was part of a "litany of ineptitude" by the administration which he said is driving Democrats to distraction and, he hoped, into his new coalition.
Of California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who is competing hard here for the same independent and liberal Democratic votes, Anderson says that while he agrees with him on many social issues, "I don't see much meat on the bones there . . . a lack of specifics." Anderson hit Brown for his "pirouette" on Proposition 13, the tax-rollback initative that led to spending cuts.
When questions about Anderson's alienation of "real" Republicans came up yesterday, he conceded that, "I will lose some Republicans . . . No way am I ever going to get the Phil Cranes of this party [and others on the right who have] been trying to push me out for years.
"These are people over on the right, jumping up and down, screaming and shouting, but they are a small minority.
"I just cannot believe that the party will follow them, and lemming-like, rush to the sea and drown just so they can follow Ronald Reagan's banner as it sinks beneath the waves."
Anderson listed Tuesday's vote in his home state, where he polled 37 percent to Reagan's 48 percent, was "not a hindrance" to his campaign. He noted that he had progressed steadily from 4 percent in Iowa, to 9 percent in New Hampshire, to 29 percent in Vermont and 31 percent in Massachusetts.
His campaign and his "new coalition" do not depend only on the limited supply of open primary states with crossover voting, Anderson said. But he added: "We've got some work to do."
Meanwhile, a Madison newspaper poll today showed Reagan and Anderson neck and neck in Wisconsin.
Anderson drew a record crowd for a luncheon talk before the Greater Madison Board of Realtors today, according to several members. "I think he is straightforward," said realtor Gene Blabaum. "I think he'll be my first vote for a Republican for president."
While Anderson himself isn't talking about a third-party candidacy, the idea is plainly unsettling to the Carter campaign. "If our nominating process goes down to a nasty little struggle towards the end," John White, chairman of the National Democratic Committee, said yesterday, "that high degree of disappointment by some people would lead them to support a third party."
And, said White at a breakfast meeting with reporters, Anderson's constituency is more likely to vote for Carter than Ronald Reagan. "Many of the things Anderson stands for are the things we stand for," he said.
The possibility of an independent Anderson candidacy, however, seems to have generated more smoke than fire in Washington's political circles. Everyone is talking about it, but no one seems to be doing anything.
"I've heard nothing other than what I read in the papers," said Rep. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), a strong Anderson supporter. He's assured me his sole goal is to get the Republican nomination."
But Jeffords, who said he would support the Republican nominee even if Anderson ran as an independent, added, "If he was thinking about it, he wouldn't want it to leak out. We're working hard to get delegates for him in Vermont. If word got out that he was thinking of bolting the party -- forget it."
Dan Swillinger, a senior Anderson aide, said the speculation about an independent candidacy is "close to being a dead story. I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think Anderson has any taste for it. I don't think the senior staff has any taste for it."
Swillinger said he knows of no effort to begin to compile state election information on filing as a third-party candidate. "The whole emphasis is on staying in the party and trying to broaden the party and to register and reregister as many people as we can."
Should Anderson be tempted, however, the odds against the third-party candidacy are formidable. If he tried to file as an independent after the Republican convention, 17 states including Texas, Ohio, New Jersey and Massachusetts, wouldn't even allow his name on the ballot.
Maryland and New Mexico's filing deadlines for independent candidates have already passed. Ohio's is Thursday. Maine and Kentucky deadlines are the first week in April. However, such deadlines can be subject to court challenges, as occured with Eugene McCarthy's candidacy in 1976.
Federal laws also discriminate against an independent candidate. Anderson would not be eligible for the $29.4 million in federal subsidies that the Republican and Democratic nominees receive. Yet he probably would be subject to contribution limits of $1,000 from an individual and $5,000 from a committee.