A way back for Jimmy Carter?

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau

IS there for Jimmy Carter no way back to the center of the political stage? Political experts deride even the slightest suggestion that Carter might be able to rise from the ashes. When, they say, has a former president been forgotten so fast?

Carter has, indeed, dropped pretty much from public sight. He is seldom mentioned. And when he is the comment usually has something to do with his astonishingly rapid decline. "Here he was President just a few months ago," a businesswoman remarked the other day, "and now he's insignificant, no bigger than this" -- and she held up her little finger.

President do, inevitably, drop from view. For did.But not like Carter. He remained as the titular head of his party, speaking out and being listened to on the major issues of the day. Nixon was, of course, a special case. Unanswered questions about him persisted. He was and will doubtless remain a subject of press and public interest.

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Eisenhower, Truman, Johnson: they moved off stage, but they lingered in public consciousness. Carter somehow looms smaller than life.

Yet, this could be just another phase in the Carter saga. He had a low moment after losing his first race for governor, but he came back stronger than ever.

This may be only a pause, a time when he is simply catching his breath, planning his future.

Carter's record shows how resilient he is. Despite the view to the contrary from the political pundits and his fellow politicians, Carter could bounce back. He's still vigorous. He's certainly young enough.

Carter could argue that he purposely has stepped back from the limelight in order not to interfere in any way with Reagan getting his job done. He has in fact been singularly uncritical of his successor. A few times he has faulted Reagan, and these comments have reached some front pages. Also, Carter's trip to Peking has given him a flash of visibility. But up to now he obviously has gone out of his way to leave the field to Reagan.

One assumption of those who relegate Carter to permanent obscurity is that his presidency was discredited by the last election. They say the American people showed conclusively they were tired of Carter and his direction, or lack of it.

But a better reading of the election was not that Carter was discredited but that the public, or a majority of those who voted, wanted a change. Therefore should Reagan's economic initiatives fail to work -- or if in other areas the President begins to appear less than invincible -- a lot of people are going to be looking for another change and for someone to take on Reagan in 1984.

With Reagan's programs becoming tarnished Carter's presidency might be looked at in a new light. Under those circumstances Carter could rise again -- if not as a presidential candidate then as the party's chief sage and power wielder, whose blessing the Democratic nominee would have to have in order to be selected.

Carter, to many people, may look inconsequential these days, but those who have faced him know that he's an immensely adroit politician who likes nothing better than being underestimated. Should he see an opening -- a vulnerable Reagan -- underdog Carter could, should he so desire, make a powerful bid for the nomination.

The fact is, Carter's potential foes don't look that impressive. There is a void of standout Democratic leaders. His vice president, Walter Mondale, might be his chief opponent. Mondale is attractive and personable, but observers wonder whether Mondale has the staying power, whether he would even stay in the race if Carter decided to jump in.

Then there is always Kennedy. The Massachusetts senator gets less formidable as a presidential contemer as the years go by. President Carter beat him last year. And private citizen Carter might be able to defeat the weakening Kennedy who looks increasingly like an old horse who has had his day.

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