It may simply have been because he was in second place going into the debates and in first place coming out. Still, John Kennedy, right after barely beating Richard Nixon, offered this explanation for that victory: "It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide."

Kennedy's speculation became conventional wisdom and eventually Political Law. That Nixon, in the debates on television, blew both a lead and the White House was rarely questioned. An old theme even gained a new variation that Kennedy did not win the debates, the press just told people that Kennedy had won.

One of the real problems with debates is scoring them. It is not like an actual election in which one candidate does win more votes. Judging a debate can be a very subjective business, which is one reason American voters since 1960 have heard much more about candidate debates than they have from debating candidates.

Jimmy Carter and, apparently, ABC will not be there. But Sunday night in Baltimore is still quite important. Carter, who concluded his own 1976 post-election analysis by saying, "If it hadn't been for the debates, I would've lost," objected vehemently to the guest list. bABC, as part of a continuing commitment to persuade people that the First Amendment should not apply to net work Television, states a preference for broadcasting "Midnight Express" (a film about the mistreatment of a cleancut, young American drug-smuggler in a sadistic Turkish prison. Parental Discretion Advised).

John Anderson, with the sure knowledged that this one performance could leave him, by Sunday midnight, either a full-fledged presidential contender or a stuffy and slipping spoiler, is in training and seclusion. Ronald Reagan, with the issues and the electoral college tilting his way, must see the Balitmore debate as his main chance to reassure an anxious electorate. For Reagan, Baltimore can mean the chance to cancel permanently some voters' reservations about him.

For those of us who fancy ourselves conscientious citizens, the Anderson-Reagan encounter is an absolute "must." And while none of us can be certain what will happen Sunday night, we can all be reasonably sure what some of the Leading Commentators will say Monday morning.

Syndicated Columnist (sympathetic to the president): Where is Mencken when we need him? Anderson and Reagan in Baltimore certainly were not to be confused with Douglas and Lincoln in Freeport.Truly, the world will little note nor long remember what either of them said here.

Apologists for these televised game shows, masquerading as political debates, argue that such debacles provide the voters with a peek at the candidates -- at their instincts and their innards. Well, the obvious winner has to be Jimmy Carter for possessing the presidential judgement and instinct not to show up. . . .

Important Television Critic: Overnight Nielsens confirm what most had suspected: the debates were no draw. Demographically, the dynamite 11-18 age group decided early that the presidential debates were a major turnoff.

Take Wilkes-Barre (please!). There, the Channel 101 Turhan Bey-Julius LaRosa Film Festival easily outdrew the Reagan-Anderson talking heads.

Syndicated Columnist (early Connally, late Reagan): The liberal toadies who were smirking about Gov. Reagan's showing up Sunday night in a navy and black velour jumpsuit won't be smiling on Nov. 5.

What color was the suit? Right: black and blue. And that is exactly where this election is going to be decided -- among black american voters and blue-collar American voters and in cities like Baltimore. Baltimore, some of the intellectuals now cheering Anderson might be surprised to learn, was one of five American cities, in the census of 1910, that counted more than 80,000 blacks.

Ronald Reagan knows how to communicate. What he was communicating Sunday night was courageous: black and blue can and do go together.

Pro-Anderson Commentator: Nobody had the home-field advantage in Baltimore on Sunday. The Orioles are all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race. The Colts are in for what seems sure to be an Autumn of Discontent.

But Baltimore may have discovered a Real Contender named John Anderson.

Anderson has no problem with cellulite and his cholesterol count looks low. He may in fact be the Herbal, Antipreservative Candidate. But John Anderson spoke for a lot of us when he said, "Sometimes party loyalty demands too much of a press of conscience...."