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How Carter manages to stay aloft

The words one hears so much about the electorate these days are that it is "volatile," that the voters' attitudes are "soft." Polls have, indeed, shown some big voter turnarounds in just a matter of days. The public does give the impression of being less than certain about the candidates.

But this whole theory of voter changeable- ness is currently being challenged by Mr. Carter's ability to stay aloft without much in the way of visible support.

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Sure, the hostages are still there. But reporters traveling the nation these days are finding that people are increasingly becoming impatient that the Americans have not been released. Thus, support for the President on this matter is declining.

And the first strong patriotic response to the Carter-imposed sanctions on the Soviets is fading, too, as the evidence grows that Moscow intends to remain in Afghanistan for at least some time to come.

On the of that the public is becoming increasingly unhappy over what appears to be runaway inflation and over an energy crisis that seems to be worsening each day. And, additionally, the President's recent gaffee on the US vote at the UN criticizing Israel certainly isn't improving Carter's presidental image.

But the President still is doing quite well in the polls, even though his rating has been dropping a little bit of late. How does he do it?

Well, some observers out of bafflement now are calling it "Carter luck." But there is a new ingredient at work in American politics today which is contributing to the President's ability at this point to defy gravity, and it can be defined as follows:

Call it, if you like, "voter sophistication." Or you just might call it "voter good sense." But whatever it is named there is no doubt that the electorate today is showing signs of being much more understanding of how exceedingly difficult and complex the problems are that confront the President.

Certainly, people expect Carter to do something about these problems. But this reporter, in talking to voters and politicians all around the US, is finding that again and again they are saying something like this: "OK, the President isn't getting the hostages out yet. And he's not coping with energy and the economy. But, perhaps, he's doing the best that can be done. At any rate, some of the problems, like inflation and what OPEC is doing to us, may be unsolvable."

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One finds, too, in the breakdown of many polls today this contradiction: So many voters who are backing Carter against Kennedy are doing so while at the same time they are expressing a rather tepid attitude toward the President. They are behind Carter simply because they think he has character, because they believe he is doing the best he can, and because they just don't know whether anyone else could do any better.

Oh, yes, in the race against Kennedy, Carter does have something else that's helping him politically. It's really nothing more than a voter feeling, widely shared, that Carter is a good person, someone who sets a good example -- and that Kennedy is not at all the kind of individual that children should look up to or try to emulate.

So, in a way, the Kennedy challenge is helping to prop up Carter -- to make the President look good by comparison.

But the President may well be able to stay aloft when and if Kennedy moves out of the picture -- even if he continues to have trouble making much progress in finding solutions to his big, overpowering problems.

Now this theory runs counter to the conventional wisdom in this city which says that at some point the President's inability to cope with US problems, particularly with economic woes, will catch up with him and that he will plummet in public opinion and once again be vulnerable to being beaten.

This forecast is what the Kennedy people are relying on -- why they hand on, hoping that by so doing they can be around when the President crashes and still be positioned to then take the nomination away from him.

And the Republicans are counting on this Carter crash, too. They think public discontent with the President is bound to be strong by the time the fall election comes around.

Perhaps. But don't leave out this other ingredient, this newly perceived wisdom of the electorate. People seem to be beginning to understand that no one is going to take over the White House and wave a magic wand and then their troubles will go away.

Indeed, the President must begin to come up with some successes in some areas , if only minor, if he is to keep in public favor. But this growing public appreciation of the almost unsolvable nature of his major problems will be helping him, too, as it is today.

All this means that the President probably has something going for him in the way of public sympathy that may yet save him his job. That's not a prediction. Just an assertion of a possibility.


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