The anticipated release of the American hostages in Iran has left Ronald Reagan's campaign team perplexed and unsettled about how to deal with what is fast becoming the oveshadowing event of the presidential race.
While Reagan has sought to regain the political offensive with hard-edged speeches charging President Carter with "incompetence" and "indifference to economic diaster," the focus of the voters and much of the campaign coverage has shifted to the hostage issue. Reagan's aides know this, but they don't know what to do about it.
"What do you do if the hostages are released?" a reporter asked a Reagan strategist.
"Punt," the Reagan aide replied.
Later, he said of Carter: "If he gets the bodies out, that's the ballgame."
The hostage issue comes at a time when private Reagan polls are showing a new upsurge in the Republican nominee's fortunes. But the worry aboard Reagan's campaign plane is that these gains will be wiped out if the hostages come back before Election Day.
Reagan and those around him realize that such an event would capture the attention, and quite possibly the imagination, of most Americans, tranforming the final days of the campaign.
Some in the Regan camp think there would be a second, more critical judgement of the Carter administration for ignoring warnings which allowed the Americans to become hostages in the first place. But they acknowledged that this reaction might come too late to benefit Reagan.
Ever since the campaign began, Reagan and his advisers have expressed concern that an "October surprise" could turn a close election to Carter. Invariably, the example of such a surprise was "freeing the hostages."
In such an event, Reagan probably would have had little political running room under the best of circumstances. And he limited his maneuverability by abruptly declaring in Lousiville on Monday night that he didn't "understand why 52 Americans have been held hostage for almost a year now."
Little more than a month ago, Reagan said he wouldn't make the hostages a partisian issue in the campaign. The White House was quick to pounce on Reagan's statements this week, saying he had broken a campaign pledge.
In the last two days Reagan has implicitly recognized that he made a political mistake in raising the issue. He has stopped making public references to the hostages, and he tells reporters who ask about the issue that he doesn't want to comment. As quickly as possible, Reagan turns the conversation back to "Carter's sorry record of failure" on various economic issues.
Neither Reagan nor his aides are throwing in the towel because of the hostage issue.
On the contrary, the campaign is moving ahead with a pre-arranged political game plan for the final 10 days which will be touched off with a paid, 30-minute speech on economic issues that Reagan will make at 10:30 p.m. Friday on ABC television.
"Since we can't do anything about the hostages anyway, we might as well go on doing what we can do," said a Reagan aide philosophically.
What Reagan hopes most of all to do -- and there is a strong belief on his campaign plane that he can -- is hold his own or better in the face-to-face debate with Carter next Tuesday in Cleveland.
That debate, Reagan said Wednesday in an interview with The Washington Post, is certain to focus on economic issues and the Carter record as well as on foreign policy.
Some Reagan aides even see potential perils for Carter in the hostage issue.
"It's a high risk strategy for the president," said one Reagan aide. "Carter has raised expectations so many times for political purposes, as he did in the Wisconsin primary, that the American people probably won't buy a promise this time. If he raises expectations again and doesn't deliver, the whole issue could backfire."
Whatever happens, the view on Reagan's plane is that the Republican nominee can do little to influence the hostage issue. With 11 days to go in this close election, events beyond the control of his campaign are shaping the outcome.