Campaigning in the shadow of the hostage issue, Ronald Reagan muted his critism of President Carter today and talked instead about his vision of America.
"This is too delicate a situation," Reagan said of the hostages, as he left the Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus this morning." ". . . I'm not going to comment. We all want them home."
This streetside remark set the tone for a day in which Reagan virtually stopped mentioning President Carter by name and instead talked about how "the people in Washington" had messed up the U.S. economy.
This new tactic was calculated to keep Reagan, who believes he is winning this election, from saying anything that might be interpreted as an attempt to make political capital from the plight of the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran and their familes at home.
Speaking to a rally at Marietta College, Reagan said: "This is not the time or place for me to address such a sensitive matter. Obviously, all of us want this tragic situation resolved. It is my deepest hope and I know it's yours.
"But this is also a time when, more than ever before, we American's must develop a special vision of the future to build a sense of where we want to go, what kind of people we'll be, and what kind of legacy we'll leave to our children and grandchildren."
Reagan's vision, as recounted in this speech, was a bland and unspecific celebration of the diversity of Americans and the unity of the nation in times of crisis.
The closet Reagan came to criticizing Carter, whom he had been routinely describing as "incompetent" and "a failed president," was when he decried the notion that effective presidential leadership begins in Washington.
"If I get that job I'm seeking, we're going to have again the kind of nation where leadership from the people works" Reagan said.
Later, in a speech in Dayton after the evening network newscasts, the Republican nominee hardened his tone slightly and returned to his standard criticism of Carter, whom he said had mismanaged the economy.
The candidate and his top aides hammered out their strategy for the day in an early morning staff meeting in a Columbus motel. The Reagan approach, which one aide described as "the statesmanship route," was carefully coordinated with running mate George Bush and former president Gerald Ford, both of whom appeared today on network interview shows in Washington.
The view at the staff meeting was that the anticipated return of the hostages might be a political wild card in the scrambled deck of Tuesday's election. But the prevailing view in the meeting, reflecting the finding of Reagan campaign polls, was that the GOP nominee was solidly ahead and would win the election unless he made some huge mistake.
Reagan showed no sign of doing that today. Though obviously tired after one of his most strenuous weeks of campaigning, the candidate struck a cautious and subdued pose throughout the day and did not allow himself to be drawn into a political assessment of the hostage issue.
That assessment came from chief of staff Ed Messe, who said that "the main thing voters will be looking for on Tuesday is what lies ahead for the next four years. And I think they're going to vote on the basis rather than just the events of the next few days."
Nevertheless, the optimism on the Reagan campaign plane which has been building ever since last Tuesday's presidential debate, was tempered by the hostage situation. Pollster Richard Wirthlin said that nobody knew precisely what the emotional impact of a hostage release would be or whether it would have any impact at all.
The Reagan campaign is surveying to see if there is a shift to Carter in the final days and asking questions about the effect of a hostage release.
Also in reserve, but highly unlikely to be used, is a series of hard-hitting paid political commericials directly addressing the hostage situation and blaming the president for allowing the American's to have been taken captive in the first place. One well-placed aide said today that these ads "will not be seen by the voters in all likelihood."
In Peoria, Ill., on Monday morning, Reagan will tape an election-eve address that will be shown for 30 minutes over two networks, and 20 minutes over a third.
That speech, said an aide, is "still evolving" but is expected to be similar in tone and content to what Reagan said today in a series of speeches across southern Ohio.
Carter narrowly won Ohio and with it the presidential election in 1976 by running far ahead for normal Democratic voting patterns in the state's southern counties which have Dixie sympathies extending back to Civil War days.
This time, Reagan survey's show most of these counties returning to their usual Republican voting habits in presidential elections.