The Reagan campaign strategy will follow its prearranged pattern Oct. 1 when the soggy television spots celebrating Ronald Reagan's golden days in California are replaced by attacks on Jimmy Carter's gloomy years in Washington -- a shift that retains the anemic, safety-first nature of his campaign.
The soft-sell commercials were based on the theory that voter skepticism about Reagan as president could be dispelled by dwelling on his long-ago record as governor. With a month to go, there would still be ample time to rip into Carter's record as president.
This has meant a wasted month for Reagan in which the initiative was handed to President Carter's bloodthirsty offensive. Reagan supporters in Congress and the business community have been distressed by the campaign's passivity and eagerly await the attack phase.
But even after Oct. 1, caution will prevail. The theme will be not what Reagan can do for the country but what Carter has done to it. Reagan's bold program of economic growth through tax reduction is covered up. The dodging of a head-on debate with the president reflects the mood.
The Reagan campaign thus represents the triumph of the poll-takers, advertising men and political technicians over the creative theorists. His campaign is geared to the hope that Reagan, if he avoids risks, can ride Carter's unpopularity into the White House. But Reagan's avoidance of issues as well as risks gives the Carter team a free run with its patented non-issues strategy of personal attack.
All this was predicted seven months ago when, in the wake of the purge of John Sears as campaign manager, Reagan's chief pollster became his chief strategist. The elevation of Dr. Richard Wirthlin, one of the nation's most respected pollsters, stirred fear within the Reagan camp that the campaign would follow Carter's in linking policy to mass opinion.
Sure enough, the Reagan strategy derived from Wirthlin's computer printouts that showed (as did Carter pollster Pat Caddell's surveys) substantial voter doubt whether a superannuated Hollywood actor could handle the presidency. Wirthlin and his fellow triumvirs in the Reagan campaign, William Casey and Edwin Meese, decided on using the month of September to show Ronald Reagan without horns -- particularly in his role as governor.
The job was entrusted to Los Angeles advertising executive Peter Dailey, who produced Richard Nixon's 1972 commercials and, like mos t in his trade, is allergic to serious discussion of issues. Dailey's nostalgic snapshots of how Reagan handled California's issues of nearly 15 years ago were universally greeted with barnyard adjectives by critical congressman given a preview.
Nevertheless, the soft-sell Reagan spots of 30 seconds, one minute and five minutes have been shown repeatedly on national television. Nobody could possible guess from watching them that any issues of substances were involved in this election. This unwittingly complements the Carter strategy of keeping Reagan on the defensive by dodging the president's vulnerable record and stressing personal invective.
Congressman and Reagan staffers were no happier after previewing Dailey's attack-phase commercials. Heavy-handed attacks on Democratic-induced inflation and demands for less government spending recall a half-century of Republican futility.
What has happened to those dynamic Republic commercials, spelling out a venturesome policy of economic growth through tax reduction, that brought him back from the brink of defeat in New Hampshire last winter? The commercials themselves are in mothballs; the ideas they contained are banished from future advertising. Wirthlin has made clear in secret briefings that his surveys show tax reduction to be a losing issue and lower government spending a winning issue.
Since Reagan received the same briefings from Wirthlin, it is remarkable that in the debate against Rep. John Anderson he stoutly defended incentives of lowered taxation to reactivate the American economic system. On this as on other issues, Reagan's political instincts have surpassed the wisdom of non-ideological advisers and their computer printouts.
Those printouts led Reagan's advisers to their passivity and fear of creative ideas. Now the same advisers have handed the advantage in the debate issue back to the White House rather than run the risk that Ronald Reagan, who never has performed badly in a debate, might commit the sin of taking hard positions. If Reagan is elected president, it will be because of irrevocable public displeasure with the incumbent rather than a convincing case made by the challenger.