Here's where it stands, I think, after nearly a month on the road talking with voters and just before tonight's televised make-or-break presidential debate. Warning: These are a reporter's seat-of-the-pants personal impressions only, political fans, not another "scientific" (?) survey:
In California, where this latest swing around the country began, it was almost as if everyone had tuned out the election news. They had made up their minds and knew exactly how it was going to come out. As many people said, the 1984 presidential election was a fait accompli.
Whether they were influenced by the daily -- and deadening -- recitation of the polls, with their cumulative tales of increasing bad news for Walter F. Mondale and the Democrats, is a moot point. The point is, people believed it was settled.
That's changed now. People are paying attention. They will be tuned in tonight.
Second point: The longer I traveled and the more people I met (many of whom I had interviewed in the past), it seemed apparent that those early polls were right when they said that Ronald Reagan was headed for a historic victory, greater, it appeared, than any in the past.
The evidence strongly pointed to a personal and electoral landslide for Reagan that would sweep everything before it, quite possibly dramatically alter the composition of Congress, give him a free hand in a second term and put the Republicans on the road to majority political party status for the first time in more than half a century.
I don't believe any of that to be in the cards now.
If Reagan wins (still the likely prospect), it seems far more doubtful that his victory margin will be enough to bring about the great political realignment that would affect the policies of the American government for the remaining years of this century.
On the polls and the potential voter turnout Nov. 6 : If there is a surprise element in the electorate, it could come from the ranks of previously unregistered -- and unpolled -- low-income, first-time voters, most of them Democrats. Comments by Robert R. Brischetto of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio, the leading organization registering Hispanic voters across the Southwest and California, were interesting:
"We've doubled our effort since 1980. We've had new voter-registration numbers we've never seen before. Of course one is always reacting to polls, but I don't like to use the polls to predict what is going to happen, especially among Mexican-American voters. I believe the polls are not reflecting what the actual final Election Day vote will be, and here's why.
"Many of those new people we have registered have never voted before and many, probably most, have never been polled before. Pollsters, especially the telephone pollsters, miss those people at the lower end of the economic pile. Many of those people don't even have phones. And many of the polls are based on who's voted before. So when you've got a lot of new registration activity, it's not wise to use the polls to predict what's going to happen."
On the unions and the Democrats: The inability of Mondale, the trade union leadership and the Democratic Party to win back defecting rank-and-file workers who formed the heart of the old Democratic governing coalition forged during the New Deal days surely stands as the greatest political failure of the year so far. It also holds long-term ramifications for the Democrats. It's startling to hear local United Auto Workers officials tell you they're battling to win back 30 percent -- or 50 percent -- of their membership. Perhaps this group, too, will produce an Election Day surprise, but the hour is late.
On the Moral Majority, or so-called New Right, and the Republicans: Reagan profits in his reelection effort from the passionate support of this group, but I believe the Republicans lose in the long run from their courting of this ideological faction. Too many Republicans, whether in California, Texas, Illinois or Iowa, express concern about them to help stengthen the GOP after the election.
On Reagan: This election is a referendum on Reagan in all kinds of ways: the sense of well-being he conveys to the citizens, the faith people place in his handling of foreign and domestic affairs, the confidence he inspires for the future. All the hopes for a great Republican realignment, with big numbers of new GOP members of Congress riding into Washington because of his political appeal, also rest squarely on him personally.
But that first disastrous TV debate struck heavily at those hopes. It hurt Reagan where he's most vulnerable: the fear that he lacks the capacity to guide the nation through another four years.
The impact of that first debate can't be overstated. And the damage to Reagan wasn't done by what the polls and the pundits later reported. It was caused by the very personal reaction of people who were troubled by what they saw. For example, here's how three of Waterloo's most prominent business executives, all ardent Reagan supporters, described what they saw that Sunday night:
Merchant: "Reagan looked -- I hate to use the word -- but he looked old, he looked bumbly, he wasn't sharp, he didn't have command. It was his worst performance."
Banker: "I had the impression he hadn't even read a newspaper the past year. I could have done a better job."
Merchant: "I think they rehearsed him to the point where he was overtrained. He was punchy. He even made the remark: 'I promised I wouldn't use this phrase.' And then he used it."
Banker: "And then he was critical of the budget office, which is one of the few independent agencies we have left, in my opinion. And demeaned them. I couldn't believe he would do something like that."
Construction official: "I felt very sorry for Reagan, almost to the point of a couple of times I thought he was losing track of where he was going to go -- maybe go out in the kitchen and do something else. I thought he did a bad job. I agree that maybe he was overrehearsed. But the one thing I know is the role was reversed from when he and Carter debated. He's the target now. I think he got attacked on some things that he didn't have good answers for."
Merchant: "Reagan has one more chance."
So he does, and it comes tonight. For Reagan, tonight's Kansas City TV debate with Mondale stands as the highest-risk performance of his career. This time it's not the team that has to win one for the Gipper. The Gipper has to win one for himself or all bets are off about this election.