Washington — Jimmy Carter may well make it. One must start with that observation. Obviously, he's either tied or a little ahead or a little behind. The pollsters are only agreed that this race is extremely close -- and that a last-minute surge by either candidate could be decisive in the outcome.
Those reporters who remember the 1948 comeback of Truman against Dewey recall great similarities with the current Carter race.
Both Presidents were in trouble with the voters at the outset of the campaign. In both instances there was a widespread perception that the men were less than presidential in stature.
Truman was looked upon as kind of an ordinary fellow who was there only because of the accident of succession. Much of the public views Carter as somewhat of an accident, too, a candidate whose unpretentious ways somehow caught the fancy of the voters.
The public in 1976 also particularly liked the idea of having an outsider as president, someone who would bring new faces and, they hoped, new approaches to Washington.
So Carter jumped from Jimmy Who? to Jimmy Somebody in a hurry. But, running smack into tremendous problems and an uncooperative Congress, the man from Georgia has found the going tough. And as time has gone on, he, like Truman initially, has diminished in the public perception.
Now Carter actually is much better of visa-vis his opponent on the eve of the election than was Truman -- again, according to the polls. Dewey was going to win. All the experts were saying that. But, of course, he didn't.
What won for Truman was the way he rallied that rank-and-file Democrats to his side. At whistlestop after whistlestop he spoke of his efforts to champion the little people -- the working man, the farmer, the underprivileged -- and how that Republican-controlled Congress was preventing him from helping them.
Suddenly Truman caught on. Suddenly the perception of a small, rather petty, ineffective President changed. In its place a spunky, battling President emerged -- in the eyes of the Democrats. They began to cheer him. And soon a love affair of the Democrats with "give-'em-hell Harry" began -- which was to last for the rest of his life.
Now Mr. Carter appears to be in better shape them Truman at election-eve time. He seems to need just a little more -- just a slight voter movement in his direction in the big industrial states -- to sweep by reagan to victory.
But the question is: Will he get it? And this is a very relevant question to reporters traveling the nation these days and talking to grass-roots voters. What they are finding is this: Even the most ardent Carter supporters seem rather tepid -- and, particularly so, when contrasted with the excitement Truman stirred up in the crowds when he hit his stride late in his campaign.
True, many Democrats, lured for a while by Anderson, are coming back to vote Democratic and, incidentally, for Carter.
True, many farmers are happier with Carter these days, partly because of higher prices, partly because of the deal with China.
True, many working men are deciding to vote for Carter after labor leaders have convinced them that Reagan doesn't have their best interests at heart.
And true, too, most blacks are deciding for Carter -- mostly because Reagan doesn't sount to them like he would help them much.
But carter, as of this writing, simply hasn't "caught on" with the rank-and-file Democrats -- certainly not in the way Truman did.
Perhaps, of course, Carter won't need that little "extra" to win. Perhaps, unlike Truman, he already has his victory -- compounded in part by a similar lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Reagan. We'll soon know.
But if Carter loses, those who assess the defeat may very well say that his loss stemmed from his inability to get the voter aroused in his behalf the way Truman did years ago. They may say for lack of being able to "do a Truman," the race was lost.