Ronald Reagan acknowledged today that President Carter had largely succeeded in making the former California governor the chief issue of the presidential campaign.
"I felt he would try to make me the issue of the campaign and he obviously did by using this warmongering charge," Reagan said in an interview with The Washington Post.
But the Republican nominee expressed optimism that he could turn the campaign back to what he consideres the main issue -- "carter's record of failure" -- when he debates the president on national television Tuesday.
Referring to the upcoming 90-minute confrontation with Carter in Cleveland, Reagan said, "I have to believe that since the debate is going to be based on questions, that they're not going to ask all of these questions -- every question on the subject dear to his heart. I think they're going to want to ask about the economy and his plan versus mine, and so forth."
Despite Reagan's confidence that he can force the campaign back to his chosen battleground, top Reagan aides recognize that this will not be an easy task.
"We're going to have to be disciplined -- very disciplined," said long-time Reagan adviser Michael K. Deaver. "We're just going to have to talk about the economy day after day after day."
When the campaign started, Reagan aides were confident that they could make Carter's record the issue. But Reagan said in the interview today that the president's repeated depiction of him as a man who would lead the country into war made it necessary to answer Carter in the televised foreign policy speech he made last Sunday.
"I knew when I made that speech that obviously for several days that questions would be on this [foreign policy] subject," Reagan said. "But it finally had to be met because he was a voice out there -- and the president's voice can very often get heard more than the challenger's voice. Constantly, this din about war and war and war where I'm concerned. You could see sometimes the hostile demonstrators, their signs beginning to turn to that subject."
Reagan's effort to shift the dialogue is already under way. His main attempt to accomplish this will come Friday in another 30-minute televised speech over the CBS network, which Deaver, after reviewing a draft, called "a 10 strike."
But Reagan was peppered today with foreign policy questions as he campaigned through Louisiana and Mississippi. The candidate tried to avoid the issue he had raised this week by saying as little as possible about the Carter Administration's handling of the hostage situation.
"I'm not going to comment on this anymore, because it's so obvious how they've tried to make a political issue of this -- and with 52 human beings at stake I'm not going to discuss it. I'm not going to touch on it at all. I'm going to keep talking about his record, which is the real issue of this campaign," Reagan said in Shreveport.
At Centenary College here, the GOP nominee gave his standard speech assaulting Carter's performance on a host of economic issues.
"The man who's asking for four more years isn't competent to do the job," Reagan said.
In this energy-oriented state, Reagan repeatedly rapped Carter for the restraints he has imposed on the oil industry.
In a statement he issued after arriving here Tuesday night, Reagan called for "prompt enactment of relief for the many small royalty owners who are suffering an unconscionable hardship as a result of Mr. Carter's so-called windfall profits tax."
Moving on today to Columbus, Miss., Reagan won endorsements from a well-known black mayor, Charles Evers of Fayette, and from John Bell Williams, a former governor and an outspoken segregationist.
"They're going to give us jobs to earn our livings and not stand in the welfare line," Evers said in an endorsement statement at the Columbus airport.
Introducing Reagan at a barbecue in Columbus, Williams described Carter as "a man who put aside Jefferson and picked up Karl Marx."