In the room where I watched Ronald Reagan and John B. Anderson answer questions for an hour Sunday night -- a place where there were probably not hordes of fans of either man -- the feeling was that they both had done very well.
Certainly, their words and demeanor were not of the character that would allow any but the most partisan adviser of Jimmy Carter to claim that the two challengers had demeaned their own credentials or diminished their own credibility as contenders.
The tone of the discussion in the League of Women Voters forum was -- like the earlier forums in the Republican primaries -- measured, calm, sensible, occasionally spirited and generally good-humored. There were no rhetorical cheap shots, and both Reagan and Anderson were succinct and effective in putting across their positions.
If there was a hope going into the debate among Carter strategists that at least one -- and maybe both -- of the participants would be judged plainly "unpresidential" by the audience, my guess is that hope was shattered.
On the contrary, the proverbial visitor from Mars would have had no trouble in seeing either the tall, erect former governor or the white-haired congressman as obvious "authority figures." Their voices and bearing conveyed confidence and a proper degree of dignity.
To a significant degree, Reagan and Anderson both accomplished what they set out to do. Anderson wanted to make more people acquainted with him and his views and to present a more "comfortable" appearance than the somewhat acerbic personality he displayed in his last months as a Republican. He did that, and defined a position for himself different from that of Reagan and the absent Carter.
Reagan believed, on the basis of his own polls, that the strengthening of Anderson's position as a legitimate contender would help his own chances, inasmuch as Anderson draws more heavily from Democrats and liberals than he does from Republicans and conservatives.
The Reagan-Anderson confrontations were on conservative-liberal lines, which suits Reagan's strategy. And the fact that Reagan responded to every question with plausible-sounding facts -- as well as his usual rolling rhetoric -- was an implicit refutation of the charge that he lacks the mental capacity to be president.
The net result, I would guess, is ot increase the pressure on Carter to be there, behind his lectern, the next time such an opportunity presents itself.
His absence certainly diminished the significance of the Sunday night forum and reduced its audience. But there were other limitations that might be addressed before the next forum is held.
The one-hour time and the limit of a single question from each of the six journalists are far too confining. The questions were good, but the rigidity of the format reduced the element of "risk" that lends some drama to the occasion for both the contenders and the audience. This was almost too easy a forum in which to make a showing.
From the time of the first televised debates in 1960, it has seemed to me that their greatest value has not been the immediate effect of clarifying the differences on issues between the contenders.
The most important function has been to provide a focus for the campaign -- a single time and place where substantially all the likely voters could see and judge the candidates for themselves. Dramatically in 1960 and, to some degree in 1976, you could see a quantum jump in the level of interest and attention the campaign received. For days afterward, there was intense private conversation about the debate, and from those conversations emerged the national consensus that was registered at the polling place.
Sunday night's panel discussion did not do that for the 1980 election, and no discussion in which Carter is not a participant can achieve that goal. But the forum proved something positive about Reagan and Anderson, and it showed the utility of this kind of event for our election process.