Rrrrriiiiiinnnnnggggg. "Good morning, Mr. President, this is your wake-up call. The time is October and the temperature is colder than you think."
Not a lot colder. Even when a candidate loses a debate as decisively as Reagan did, most of his supporters do not see it that way, so it is apt to have only a small -- say, four-or five-point -- impact on polls measuring the surface "horse race" ranking.
But the morning after -- and for the Reagan campaign it should have felt like a morning after, throbbing at the temples -- there was Ed Rollins, Reagan's campaign director, on television gamely saying: Well, Mondale had all those debates with Democratic rivals and therefore, having had more practice. . . .
Ring Lardner, call your office: Alibi Ike has wandered off your pages and into politics.
Mondale was sharper because he had been honed on such whetstones as Alan Cranston and Gary Hart? Give us a break, Rollins. The point is not that Mondale was sharper but that Reagan was ragged. It was probably the raggedness of excessive discipline, compounded with a kind of indiscipline.
He was worst when he should have been best, in the closing statement. He did not do what he was supposed to do. He started to, when he said: Four years ago I asked if you were better off than you were four years earlier. Now I ask, is America better off. . . .
Then he lost the thread of what I am told was a splendid and well-thought-out statement. He looked, as he did much of the evening, uncomfortable, the way a natural performer does when not doing what comes naturally.
He seems to have passively accepted the discipline of elaborate preparation -- but to have neglected a harder discipline. His indiscipline is in not sifting through the mountain of numbers and other mental debris shoveled at him by advisers who live by the shovel. He has not decided what he wants to communicate.
I have a friend who drives in city traffic the way a fullback drives toward the end zone. He says: "We are told to drive defensively, but someone has to play offense." That is not the right rule for drivers, but it is the essential rule for Reagan.
This is Reagan's fifth full-scale campaign. He ran for governor twice, then he ran against Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Carter in 1980. Only once before -- in 1970, seeking re-election as governor -- has he run as an incumbent; he ran against an underfunded and erratic opponent (Jess Unruh), yet his 1966 majority was halved.
There is no reason why an incumbent cannot play offense, defining the future. But Reagan is not doing that. And the reason, I will wager, is that he is an intuitive professional allowing himself to be fine- tuned by nervous amateurs.
He has been campaigning the way some college basketball teams play when they have a big lead. They dribble around in circles, stalling to kill the clock. It can be effective. But it is barely basketball. And teams that do it often lose their rhythm and their competitive edge. Sometimes they lose their leads.
What you saw in Louisville was the Reagan of the stumbling 1980 campaign between the convention and Labor Day; and of the 1976 campaign against President Ford, between the New Hampshire and North Carolina primaries. In 1976 he had lost every primary until, in North Carolina, he got angry and got up a head of steam.
The question today is: Where is the rest of him? Where is the "I-paid-for-this-microphone" Reagan of 1980, getting out from under the tentative Reagan who, listening too much to advisers and too little to his instincts, kicked away the Iowa caucuses?
Suppose you had not seen the debate and someone told you that one candidate tellingly quoted an anecdote from Will Rogers, and challenged America to be greater than it is -- came close to speaking of a City on a Hill. The other candidate recited a blizzard of dusty economic data that only a government-intoxicated bureaucrat could love, and did so to support a backward-looking recitation about material gains. Would you have guessed that Mondale did the former, Reagan the latter?
Candidates use debates to solve problems. Reagan went to Louisville so far ahead that his only problem was to prevent Mondale from solving his problem. Mondale's problem was to get people to take him seriously. He did that.
Reagan remains closer than Mondale to the voters, both in mood and on the issues, so he left Louisville with a big lead -- something like being ahead two games to none in a best-of-five baseball series. Ronald Reagan, call the Chicago Cubs office.