The way John B. Anderson sees it, he and Ronald Reagan have Jimmy Carter in the corner on the debate issue, and the president's advisers are giving him bad advice. He says they are telling the president to duck outside the ring when he should stand up and fight.
So the independent presidential candidate switched tactics today on Carter's refusal to accept an invitation from the League of Women Voters for a three-way debate, he went after Carter's advisers rather than the president.
"I want to leave it to other people to assess the president's movies," Anderson said, quickly adding, "I don't have so much trouble assessing Mr. Strauss' motives."
After watching campaign chairman Robert Strauss and White House press secretary Jody Powell on morning television talk shows, the Illinois congressman told a press conference that the presidential advisers are misconstruing the debate issue by characterizing it as nothing more than jockeying for political advantage.
"Essentially what they ignore is, the League of Women Voters is an independent organization, nonpartisan to the core," he said. "They have undertaken the debate as a public service. To challenge their right to do that is to challenge the essential fairness of an organization that is independent and fair-minded."
The advisers also underestimate the potency of the Anderson campaign, he said. "We are not a fantasy. We are not that shadow on the stairs that the president, his campaign staff and Mr. Powell think we are. We are very much a significant force on the political scene.
By insisting on a Carter-Reagan debate before an encounter with Anderson, Carter advisers are putting a "royal classification" on the two candidates, he said. "I think the American people will resent any royal classification, any suggestion that the president or anyone else has the right to limit the choices available to the American people."
"Royal" is a new supersecret classification used by the government.
Asked why the president was going along with his advisers, Anderson replied: "He's trying to rationalize I think he has been wrongly advised."
This was a dramatic overnight change in Anderson's rhetoric. On Tuesday, he had accused the president of "running away from the Carter record, running away from the American people" and refusing to debate.
The debate invitation is something Anderson had pursued for months. For him, the issue has never been whether he would win or lose the debates. It has always been that he would win credibility by being on the same podium as the president and Reagan, the Republican standard-bearer.
Today Anderson conceded the debate would suffer if Carter does not show up, although he continued to express confidence the president eventually will accept the invitation. "It's very difficult to debate a man who isn't on the platform," Anderson said. "It's very difficult to draw the issues."
But is was clear Anderson regards the debate issue as a no-lose one for him, a potent political development on which to capitalize. Earlier this week, he said a Carter refusal to debate would be a "very powerful, persuasive and pervasive issue . . . one we could win."
To underscore his assertion that "the purpose of debate is to discuss the issues," Anderson reissued the transportation section of his platform today. It calls for creation of a new $15 billion community transportation trust fund, financed by tobacco and liquor taxes, to underwrite mass transit programs in U.S. cities.
Later, the candidate, on the first day of a five-day campaign swing in California, appeared on a radio talk show, visited a Center for Holocaust Studies and addressed a rally in the university city of Claremont.