Carter noticing Rose Garden thorns

The President's Rose Garden strategy, a sweet success for a long time, contains a prickly problem for Mr. Carter and his political advisers: How can he end it gracefully and take to the political hustings?

Mr. Carter appears to be locked in by his policy of remaining out of active campaigning as long as the American hostages are being held at the embassy in Tehran. Yet the President's top campaign hand, Robert Strauss, is urging Mr. Carter to get out and talk to the voters.

And Democratic national chairman John White says he thinks Mr. Carter will, indeed, make a move fairly soon toward out-in-the open campaigning.

Of course, the President has been conducting a very diligent campaign from within the White House. He makes many calls to politicians and rank-and-file voters, particularly in states where he faces primary tests.

And almost every day Mr. Carter talks to groups from various segments of the US society whose support he seeks.

But during the last days of the New York primary contest the assertion was increasingly heard, particularly among Democratic leaders friendly to Mr. Carter: "The President is beginning to suffer from not being willing to show himself personally to the voters."

These politicians say Mr. Carter needs to abandon his Rose Garden policy soon because:

* The polls are showing that the public is no longer rallying behind the President on the issues of the hostages and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

* The polls are also showing the voters are once again losing their confidence in the President's capacity to govern.

The politicians say Mr. Carter must somehow find a way to provide a rationale for leaving the White House without abandoning his noncampaigning pledge.

But how? several politicians were asked. No one seemed to have an answer.

Mr. White, himself, spoke about the responsibility a president had in a general election to present himself personally to the voters -- that the public in the general election period is entitled to a personal campaign by the President.

But -- again -- Mr. White didn't provide the rationale that would enable the President to ease himself out of his self-imposed bind.

Actually, Mr. Carter's decision to stay in the White House has paid off handsomely thus far.

The American people, or most of them anyway, have wanted their President to stay in Washington and keep his eye on the crises over the hostages and Afghanistan.

Further, the surrogate campaigning of Vice-President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been extensive, intensive, and most effective.

But how does Mr. Carter free himself from his trap?

Does he stay away from the national convention and miss his big opportunity to make an acceptance speech before a vast TV audience?

And does he then have to stay home while Ronald Reagan moves around the US, making speeches, shaking hands?

One of Mr. Carter's top aides, when asked about this problem March 25, said: "The [hostage] situation is dragging out. I've never heard the President say anything to the contrary about campaigning while they are held. It is still his position that he will not get involved in partisan campaigning while they are held."

Then he added, rather enigmatically: "Obviously this could not continue on until November. . . ."

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