"Jimmy just doesn't give up -- he keeps coming at you," muttered a Missouri schoolteacher admiringly. President Carter had just failed to meet the leadoff question head-on at a suburban St. Louis town meeting.
It was the question on which hangs his claim to a second term, asked by Thelma Jean Coutt, a gentle-looking woman who might have been a local librarian:
"Mr. President, why are you telling us you can cure the nation's woes in the next four years when it has gone down so far in the first four years of your administration?"
Mr. Carter threw everything he could think of into his reply -- statistics on oil supply and farm income, the "tremendous political difficulty" of energy policy, the need for "sacrifice on occasion." Then he took the next question.
Jimmy Carter is showing a gritty, scrappy intensity that his advisers think will soon translate into the magical "momentum."
They see him on the verge of catching a second wind.
But nearing the homestretch, his campaign has not coalesced around any central theme.
The public's questions, not just his opponents' challenges, are keeping him on the defensive. On his Columbus Day junket earlier this week he fended off hecklers in New York when avowing support for Israel, promised cynical Illinois coal miners to replace OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil with American coal as the world's dominant energy source, and bravely praised America's capacity to benefit by immigration when asked in Missouri to defend the Cuban refugee influx. It was a day of disjointed promises and pieces.
And yet the Carter style -- displaying a virtuoso command of facts, earnestness, alternating steely aggressiveness and toothsome charm -- seems suited to the come- from-behind race in which he finds himself.
Outwardly, the Carter entourage is almost brazen in its confidence. Its members are convinced they were right not to debate. They say Carter was right in hitting Ronald Reagan with the "war and peace" and "racism and hate" barbs. The "flap in the press" over "meanness" was eating up too much time, they say, so the President had to shut it off by appearing to "clean up his act."
"Meanness isn't a voting issue," one of his lieutenants says. "War is."
They think they are right, too, in their current approach to Mr. Reagan.They want to show him tattooed with his conservative statements "of the past 20 years ," after his moderate positions "of the last 20 days" are stripped away.
Carter supporters see support for Reagan shifting in big key states where he was ahead.
"We were 11 points down in Ohio -- now we're down 2," a campaign loyalist says. They cite public polls showing the race even in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
"The campaign is yet to be won, yet to be lost," asserts Carter campaign chairman Robert Strauss.
The Carter end-of-the- race strategy may not be flattering to their candidate , but it will prove effective, the President's political advisers say. A tightening of the race could translate into an apparent seizing of momentum for Carter, whom they expect to be behind until the last moment.
Then the "grudging voter" will come into play. Much of the Carter constituency is "grudging support" and will vote against him if the risk of his losing seems small, Carter people concede.That partly explains why Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would surge in the next primary against Carter, after a defeat or polls and predictions would count Kennedy out. If it looks in the end like Reagan will win, Carter backers will rally, however reluctantly, the Carter theory holds.
"There's no joy in the whole thing," said Edith Sonenshein of Forest Hills, N.Y., after Carter's Jewish community talk there Oct. 13. "They're three bad candidates.
"Carter isn't as much for Israel as he says. First comes America.
"Reagan might do better, but you don't know. Anderson won't come through -- won't be elected -- so what's the use?
"Of the three evils, I'd take the lesser, the smaller -- Carter."
Carter found a hard sell for his re-election message in normally Democratic coal towns of southern Illinois.
The mood in West Frankford, where Carter visited Oct. 13, is grim. Store fronts aging, West Frankford looks like it has been a long time since progress visited there.
"We need someone to take hold and do something -- just do it," said one frustrated miner. "We can't burn our own coal in Illinois."