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Polls and history begin to deal kindly with Jimmy Carter

JIMMY CARTER describes two governors - one from Georgia, one from Massachusetts - both competent, attentive managers with conservative budget instincts and no Washington experience. The last Democratic president and the man who aspires to be the next, Michael Dukakis, come from very different backgrounds but have similar approaches, Mr. Carter says.

Others draw the comparison even closer, holding both men to be loners with stubborn streaks, uninspiring speakers who live in a style of modest rectitude, moralists who tolerate the sloppy barter of politics only as a necessary evil.

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Carter is emerging softly onto the Democratic scene, more nearly a quiet patriarch to this convention on his home turf than the pariah he was in 1984. He still carries the political stigma of a failed presidency, but history seems to be settling over his term and improving its appearance.

Carter himself - busy as always attacking a range of world problems - is viewed with increasing charity in opinion polls. And the Democratic Party, which kept him largely out of sight in 1984, returned him to prime time last night.

But for Governor Dukakis, the comparison to Carter remains strongly negative, according to opinion analysts. This has not escaped Republicans. Lee Atwater, George Bush's campaign manager, has called Mr. Dukakis a ``Northern-fried Carter.'' Mr. Bush conjures up visions of the raging inflation, frustrations abroad, and ``malaise'' of the Carter years in his current campaign. But Carter is not likely to figure very prominently in this campaign because of time passed and the Reagan administration's own embarrassments.

One advantage Dukakis has over Carter is that Dukakis met failure earlier - during his first term as governor - and seems to have learned from it. He may have learned from Carter's failures as well.

Some of Carter's most bothersome political problems were from the left wing of his own party. What he calls his tough fiscal conservatism and the defense buildup he began late in his term opened a rift to his left that he was never able to heal.

``This caused me a great deal of pain,'' he said Saturday in a meeting with a small group of journalists. ``But after Ronald Reagan, some of those things for which I stood became more apparent'' - especially the need for tightening federal budgets.

Carter suggests that the choice of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as running mate indicates a centrist tendency in Dukakis. This makes it difficult to hold the support of liberal interest groups as president, says Carter, who adds: ``A Democratic president who is concerned with fiscal responsibility just has to be able to say no.''

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Carter was what Erwin Hargrove, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, calls a ``transitional president.'' He was the first Democratic president to confront a post-liberal era when budget deficits became the great policy fact of life. This gave him ``terrible problems with interest groups,'' Dr. Hargrove says. The question for a potential Dukakis presidency, he adds, is: ``Have the Democrats learned the need for fiscal restraint?''

The Carter years remain in the public mind as a time of stagflation, gas lines, and hostages in Iran, says William Galston of the Roosevelt Center, who last year analyzed focus-group discussions of randomly chosen voters. But Carter's image as hapless and ineffectual will erode with time, according to some scholars. Rather, he governed at an unusually confusing, difficult time, and his central failing - Hargrove says - was that he did not take Capitol Hill politics seriously enough early in his term.

Carter took on some knotty and thankless tasks, such as the Panama Canal treaties and Civil Service reform. His Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, says University of Texas scholar Bruce Buchanan, was one of the two most significant presidential foreign policy achievements since World War II.

Carter will never be assessed a great president, however, says Hargrove, whose book is scheduled to appear this fall. Dr. Buchanan compares Carter to Harry Truman, whose popularity hit historic lows during the unpopular Korean war, but who later came to be regarded with affection and respect for his character.

``If Carter's image changes over the years, the root of that will be his decency as a person,'' says Charles Jones of the University of Wisconsin and the Brookings Institution, whose book on Carter appeared this spring. ``He tried to do the right thing.''

Carter has wasted little time fretting over such matters. He has led a more active life than most ex-presidents.

He has joined former President Gerald Ford in a bipartisan project to help the new president - whether Bush or Dukakis - find his way through the issues in the first months of his term.

Carter spends a week and a half to two weeks a month at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a center for both scholarship and international civic projects in Atlanta. The complex includes the Carter presidential library and an apartment for the former President, who still lives and teaches Baptist Sunday School in Plains, Ga. Occasionally he picks up a hammer and spends a day helping build houses for the poor with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian housing group with projects all over the world.

This has not made of him a local hero. The Carter Center's neighbors in Atlanta are furious over a parkway he wants built to the complex. Conservative Georgians did not appreciate his defense of his daughter, Amy, when she was arrested for protesting Central Intelligence Agency recruiting visits to her college campus, says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden.

``When Jimmy Carter is for something, he's right. And when you're against him, you're wrong,'' says Mr. Darden, citing Carter's tendency to assume the moral high ground. The same trait is sometimes noted in Dukakis.

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