The Carter and Reagan presidential campaigns yesterday accused each other of trying to duck presidential debates.
White House press secretary Jody Powell and Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, traded accusations as Reagan's staff turned down an invitation from the National Press Club to a head-to-head debate with President Carter before the first debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters. But both sides told reporters they believe a compromise will be reached allowing debates to be held.
The two camps carried on their negotiations through the media, and each sought a pblic relations victory from the deadlock, as well as what it considers the most favorable conditions for its candidate.
The main stumbling block is the first debate. Reagan wants it to include independent candidate John B. Anderson. Carter wants the first debate to exclude Anderson, although he says he is willing to debate the independent later in the campaign.
About the only thing on which both sides now agree is that the first debate is the most important. It will have the largest audience and will have a major impact on how many Americans vote. Anderson, should his flagging campaign revive, is expected to take more votes from Carter than from Reagan.
Yesterday, Carter accepted another invitation to appear jointly with Reagan.
CBS asked Carter and Reagan to appear on an expanded, 60-minute "Face the Nation" broadcast on the earliest possible Sunday. The president said. he would be happy to appear Sept. 7.
Reagan appeared certain to refuse the invitation for the same reason he refused to go ahead with the debate at the National Press Club.
James A. Baker III, a senior adviser to Reagan, said yesterday that having already accepted an invitation to the first league of Women Voters debate, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 18, Reagan will accept no earlier debate.
Reagan's letter to the press club, written by campaign manager Casey, said that Reagan had debated other Republican candidates five times during the primary campaign. "President Carter on the other hand, has consistently refused to debate his Democratic opponents," it said.
Powell said he thinks Reagan doesn't really want a one-on-one degate with the president. He said Reagan's rejection of the press club invitation increased the Carter side's concern that Reagan is seeking to avoid such a confrontation of the two leading candidates.
Baker insisted that Reagan is committed to a one-on-one debate but wants it to follow the first league debate. Casey asked the press club to hold its invitation open until after the league debate. Reagan has asked the league to delay its first debate by three or four days.
Reagan wants a maximum of two debates, however, and could accept the press club invitation only by declining two other debates planned by the league. Baker said Reagan is committed to only the first league debate.
Carter has set no limit on the number of debates he will join, but he wants them to begin as soon as possible. Baker said yesterday that Reagan refuses to be part of any effort to freeze Anderson out of the first presenditial debate.
"We're not putting this on a basis of any high moral purpose," he said. Instead, he said Reagan expects that there will be an adverse political reaction to anyone who excludes Anderson. He compared the situation to the Nashua, N.H., debate in February, in which Reagan scored a political victory by urging the inclusion of all Republicans in what his then-rival, now running mate George Bush badly wanted to be a one-on-one debate.
In a further complication of the debate picture, the press club followed up its invitation to Carter and Reagan yesterday by inviting Reagan and Anderson to a head-to-head debate and Carter and Anderson to a similar confrontation.
Anderson said he would accept if the order of the debates were chosen by lot and the three candidates all participated.
Press Club President Seth Payne age. "We'd just like to hold one of the debates," he said.Payne said decisions on the three debates had been made at the same time, and it was inadvertent that the Reagan-carter invitations were sent out two days earlier than the others.
Powell told reporters that Carter considers the debates more important than any other single foreseeable aspect of the campaign.