Ronald Reagan and John B. Anderson used their joint televised appearance in Baltimore last night to sharpen their differences, strengthen their claims to the presidency and sustain pressure on President Carter to appear in future debates.
Displaying both confidence and clarity as they answered questions from a panel of journalists assembled by the League of Women Voters, the two candidates offered solutions to the problems of America that differed on almost every substantive point except their joint opposition to a peacetime military draft.
In a forum that produced not a single question on foreign policy, the two candidates stuck to the basic messages of their campaigns on economics, military spending and abortion. The Reagan message, as it has been for years, was that the best government is the least government. Anderson, in contrast, proposed a number of specific governmental solutions to deal with the problems of energy conservation and blighted urban areas.
While the two candidates offered little that they had not said before, they said it succinctly and made no oral blunders of the type committed by Gerald Ford in 1976 when he said the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe.
And while they mostly ignored the absent Carter, who had repeatedly turned down invitations from the league to appear, they called enough attention to the "failed promises" of the administration to remind voters that it was Carter's record that was being debated in absentia.
By differing so sharply, Reagan and Anderson also undercut the favorite White House argument for non-appearance, which is that the televised forum was just a debate between two Republicans.
In his closing remarks, Reagan said that while it might seem unfair for Carter not to be able to answer the accusations made against him, it "would have been much more unfair for John Anderson not to have a chance to participate."
Reagan, the Republican presidential nominee, and independent candidate Anderson found that their differences were even greater than when the two men were competing for the GOP nomination last spring.
Differences were significant on almost every major point of the discussion, which was moderated by the Public Broadcasting System's Bill Moyers, and carried by PBS, CBS and NBC, ABC carried a movie, "midnight Express."
Discussing urban problems, Reagan proposed that the federal government, in effect, get out of the way by turning tax sources back to local government. Anderson proposed a program of massive federal intervention to help the cities.
As in the past, Reagan supported and Anderson opposed a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting abortions except when necessary to save the life of a mother.
Predictably, the spokesmen for both Reagan and Anderson declared their candidate had scored soundly in the exchange and that Carter had suffered severe damage by staying away.
"I think Jimmy Carter was a clear loser tonight," said Sen. Paul A. Laxalt of Nevada, Reagan's national campaign chairman. "We had a good contest tonight. We had two good players. One was missing. He's the loser."
Laxalt made a similar point about Reagan when the former California governer ducked a GOP debate in Iowa last January.
Anderson press secretary Tom Mathews said that the independent candidate "went a long way towards solving one of his major problems" -- getting known to the voters.
At the White House, domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat said that Carter had not lost by refusing to debate because Reagan and Anderson had debated each other's views rather than the president's record. Eizenstat said that Reagan had adhered to long-held conservative views while "Anderson abandoned his views of 20 years [and] is moving close to the president's views."
Anderson performed as if his appearance on the stage with Reagan gave him a special opportunity in the campaign. He used his three-minute closing statment to emphasize his differences with the Republican nominee and argue that he had shown he was a genuine alternative to both Reagan and Carter.
In his closing, Reagan evoked a theme from his announcement speech, saying that America was "a land of destiny" which could regain its greatness under a Reagan presidency.
The format of the how-long program gave each of the six journalists on the panel a single question, which became the basis for an eight-minute discussion and rebuttal between the candidates. The focus was heavily on the economy and domestic problems, with a single question on the draft and one on religion-politics that the candidates used as a vehicle to air their views on abortion.
Neither man deviated from or expanded significantly on his previous positions, and many of the comments echoed arguments they had exchanged as opponents in Republican primary debates in New Hampshire and Illinois -- before Anderson dropped out of the GOP race and became an independent.
In responding to a pair of questions on inflation, tax cuts and federal spending from Carol Loomis of Fortune and Jane Bryant Quinn of Newsweek, Reagan defended and Anderson criticized the former California governor's proposal for three years of across-the-board tax rate reductions.
Reagan said deep tax cuts would provide the capital investment that industry needs to provide jobs and improve productivity, and would give wage earners "greater control over their own earnings." The GOP nominee said the tax cuts would not boost inflation above the 7.5 percent average that Senate Budget Committee experts project for the next five years and would permit a balancing of the federal budget by 1982 or 1983.
To all these claims, Anderson said they were as implausible as the promises Carter made four years ago to balance the budget in this term and reduce inflation to 4 percent.
"When we are confronting a budget deficit this year of $60 billion," the Illinois congressman said, tax cuts of Reagan's dimensions, or the smaller reductions, endorsed by Carter for next year, "simply would be irresponsible. Once again, the printing presses would start to roll and we'd see higher inflation."
Anderson noted that he was proposing, instead, a 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, the proceeds of which would be rebated to consumers through a rollback of Social Security taxes. Reagan asked, as he has previously, "Why take it in the first place and then give it back?"
The former California governor said he had demonstrated his skill in budget-cutting in that job, claiming he had reduced the growth rate of California government by 50 percent from his predecessor. But Anderson noted that the state budget had more than doubled in Reagan's eight years and claimed that his own policies would be "far less inflationary" than those Reagan was advocating.
But a question on urban problems from Lee May of the Los Angeles Times showed Anderson to be much more supportive of government programs -- and Reagan said the same thing was true in other areas.
While sharing criticisms of Carter's urban policies, Anderson was alone in proposing a $4 billion urban investment trust fund financed by federal excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
Reagan, instead, identified government as the villain and said it "would make more sense" if Washington would turn back to local government many of the tax sources it has preempted.
But Reagan did mention two federal programs he had previously endorsed during the campaign. One is an Ruban Homesteading Act that would allow city dwellers to take over rundown federal housing if they promised to fix it up and live in it. The other is an "enterprise zone" in which businesses would be given tax incentives for moving into depressed inner-city areas.
Their differences were equally sharp on a question from science columnist Daniel S. Greenberg about the effect diminishing resources would have on American life.
The GOP nominee said there are ample supplies of oil, coal and nuclear energy available but that government policies and regulations have led to scarcity.
"I think it is the government . . . that has created the energy crisis," Reagan said. "We are an energy-rich nation."
Anderson said that with that statement, "Mr. Reagan has once again demonstrated a total misunderstanding of the energy crisis which confronts the nation and the world. . . .We are going to have to create a new conservation ethic in the minds of the American people," he said.
The emotional issue of abortion provided the fuel for another sharp exchange, triggered by a question from Soma Golden of The New York Times on clergymen's right to tell parishioners how to vote.
Reagan said churches had "for a long time . . . been reluctant to speak up" but should do so on vital issues.
"Churches have a right to speak out," Anderson agreed, "but to try to tell people how to vote violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state."
Then they reiterated their opposing views on a constitutional amendment barring abortion except to save the life of a mother, which Reagan supports and Anderson opposes.
The lone topic on which there was agreement was the issue of military manpower and the draft, raised by the Baltimore Sun's Charles Corddry. Reagan and Anderson both said the shortages of noncommissioned officers and key specialists could be remedied by higher pay and benefits, without a resort to a peacetime draft.
Anderson claimed he would have "a better opportunity" to finance those benefits because he opposed "a boondoggle like the MX missile." Reagan said he supported the missile, but not the "fantastic" deployment plans in the western desert developed by the Carter administration.
The debate was held in a makeshift auditorium in Baltimore's new $50 million convention center in the city's Inner Harbor area. A crowd of about 2,500 sat on straight-back maroon chairs in the cavernous hall, which resembled an architecturally pleasing concrete bunker.
An overflow audience sat in an adjoining hall that had a closed-circuit television hookup.
The more important audience was the estimated 50 million television viewers who watched the debate on CBS, NBC and PBS instead of turning to the movie on ABC.
One evaluation of the debate favorable to Reagan came from a former competitor in the GOP primaries -- Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker, Jr., who said Reagan won on every question posed.
"He was such a strong winner I was midly surprised," Baker added.