Torrance, Calif. — Bill Colby twirls the white placard in his hands, the green letters declaring "I'm a Carter fan" spinning round and round, and allows that, yes, the President of the United States has just put on a pretty impressive show.
"I have a great respect now for his ability to deal with a situation like that, to handle those questions," says the bearded elementary school principal referring to the Sept. 22 "town hall" meeting here, where he and 1,099 other citizens ot a close-up look at an incumbent president battling hard to sweep California out from under the feet of Ronald Reagan.
Kudos on conduct aside, however, Mr. Colby has his doubts. "I did not go in there a Carter supporter," he says, "and I certainly didn't come out a Carter supporter either."
He says he might consider voting for independent candidate John Anderson. But with a few brief words that seem to sum up the quandary of voters both here and across the nation, he shrugs and says he probably won't make up his ind until "the morning of the election."
The Carter quest for California, with its 45 electoral votes, is undeniably uphill. Even as campaign strategists boasted their success in bringing together such often-at-odds Democrats as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, activist tom Hayden, and Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. for the President's campaign swing here, Whie House press secretary Jody Powell admitted, "I don't think we're home free [in California] by any means."
Nonetheless, the torrance town-hall meeting -- one of more than two dozen such gatherings Carter has held since taking office -- highlights what political observers agree is one of the incumbent's most persuasive assets: the power and glamour of his office.
Picked from the more than 5,000 people who filled out coupons that appeared in a local newspaper, the housewives, businessmen, and teen-agers who crowded into the festooned gymnasium at North Torrance High School came for what one attendee described as "a once-in-a-lifetime experience: seeing the President of the United States."
It is a glamour of position that is simply not available to candidates Reagan and Anderson. And, framed by a semi-circle of American flags and exhorted on by the school's blue-and-white-clad cheerleaders, it was an advantage that a shirt-sleeved Jimmy Carter made the most of.
Deftly fielding questions on energy, the hostages in Iran, war and the draft, and the previous night's debate between his two opponents, the President may not have won every vote in the hall, but he did pick up a few of the undecides.
"He was wonderful," gushed one woman who said she had been undecided about which candidate she preferred.
"Personal magnetism," proclaimed another.
"I went in there wavering, but I'm a Carter supporter now," said still another voter, who claimed to be the owner of a printing business.
Still, it wasn't all laurels for the President, who will be holding other down meetings in early October in Flint, Mich.; Dayton, Ohio; and Nashville, Tenn.
"I feel like I've been used for some kind of publicity gimmick," insisted Marilyn Casdner, a mother of three who says she is leaning toward Reagan. "He just turned all those questions around to his own political rhetoric."