Washington — A visit to the Midwest a few days ago provided a new reminder of the inner struggle going on among people who supported Jimmy Carter last time but who have found his presidential performance a distinct disappointment.
There was also the reminder of what caused so many people to relate to Carter in the first place: that they had found his values close to those they believed in themselves -- praying, marital fidelity, churchgoing, and what was perceived by many voters as the old-time religion of their present or past persuasion.
A professor at an Ohio college who applauds the President's position in dealing with the Arabs and Israelis but has reservations about his performance in general put Mr. Carter's basic presidential problem this way: "He's having difficulty in applying Christian ethics to practical politics."
This academician, whose father had been a minister and who himself has been very active in church work, added words to this effect:
"Carter started out by trying to apply a Christian concept of human rights to world affairs. But he ran into trouble right away with the Soviets who simply wouldn't abide by this Carter-imposed standard. And, since then, Carter has apparently continued to follow a similar approach to solving many domestic problems. And it hasn't worked very well.
"The basic difficulty here is that, if you give the same practical problem to 10 different theologians, they probably would come up with 10 different solutions."
But it isn't the theological question relating to the Carter performance that bothers most people who applaud Mr. Carter's values but now register dismay over his presidency. Instead, one hears a feeling expressed again and again approximately like this: "How sad it is that a man with such values -- values which we share -- hasn't been more successful."
Those who hold to this view don't question the Carter approach. They think he's starting out right. And they seem convinced that he's genuinely religious -- and that he is genuinely a follower of the Christian ethics he professes.
But the growing opinion one hears among these Carter supporters (many of them with evangelical ties but also many who are affiliated with other religions) is that, while Carter is undoubtedly supported and inspired and aided in his presidency by his prayer and religious dedication, he simply isn't up to the job.
The other day a West Virginian, who said he was a Baptist, tried to explain it this way: "I like Jimmy being so religious.And he's no phony. But not everyone can be a minister either. A minister has to have a 'call'. I think Jimmy thought he had a call to be President. But I'm afraid he was wrong. I'm afraid he's in the wrong business."
But the main and overriding message coming from those who relate closely to the Carter values is one that should encourage him.
Our reading is that while they are disappointed with his performance they still are "rooting" for him -- wanting him very much to succeed.
Some while back a Midwesterner said, "Wouldn't it be nice to feel that a person who has my values could succeed in the White House?" Reporters traveling all over the US hear this view repeated in varying ways by those who applaud the President's values.
This widespread support from millions of Americans who like what Carter stands for, in his personal life and personal views, is really highly visible -- in the polls and in the volatility of public opinion as expressed in the polls.
When Carter's support sinks, as it seems to be doing these days, it means that so many of those who would like to back Carter are, regretfully, faulting him because they just don't think he's measuring up.
But then suddenly Carter shoots up in the polls when he does something that may show him to be decisive, or firm -- something that might well be perceived to be "presidential."
The millions who then quickly jump to the President's side -- or at least a good proportion of them -- are those who want to see him succeed, to see a man who shares their own values perform well in the presidency.
Therein lies Carter's hope of winning a second term. He's got a lot of people out there who would like to vote for him again. But -- first and foremost -- he must show them he can be an effective President.