Jimmy Carter, in a quiet, unobtrusive, very indirect way, may be trying to exert his influence on the selection of the Democratic presidential candidate. The apparent agent of Mr. Carter's point of view is (or, at least, was) a very unlikely choice. Out of Calhoun, Ga., where the folks back home never really were that critical of his deportment as a banker, Bert Lance has risen once again - this time as the state Democratic chairman with, many observers say , ambitions to become governor.
Mr. Lance doesn't say he's speaking for Carter. But he makes it clear that his longtime, very close friendship has weathered the storm that hit his own Washington career. In fact, he told reporters who had gathered to talk to him the other morning, he had just chatted with the former President.
Already, according to reliable political observers in the South, Lance has shot upward in influence to the point where his Democratic colleagues look upon him as a regional spokesman.
Lance's message - and, it seems, Carter's, too - is that no Democratic candidate has a chance of getting the nomination without deferring to the South's ''centrist'' point of view.
Of the South's influence at the 1984 national convention, Lance said: ''In the 14 states that make up the Southern Governors' Conference, we will have 1, 262 delegates. And that's a big proportion of those necessary to nominate.''
Lance was sending a warning aimed at those candidates - particularly former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale - who are perceived as catering to the liberal point of view.
''If the Democratic candidates,'' said Lance, ''allow their campaign dialogue to center on the various trusts of the various special-interest groups - all of which seem to be liberal in direction - then they will have a major problem in being able to carry the South.''
Recently Democratic hopefuls, notably Mr. Mondale and Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, have visited Lance in Georgia - and he says he has delivered this same message.
Thus, he says, with considerable confidence, ''The South will exercise some discipline about where the dialogue will take place.
''I tell them,'' he adds, ''that they have to be at the center. I think that basically is where the Southern voter is. I think this is pretty close to the mood of the majority of the people in this country.''
What is the ''center'' as you see it?
Those of us who are in the center are concerned about the compassionate issues - human problems. We have a concern about education and about proper health care and things of that nature. We have an interest in a strong defense, but not in throwing away money excessively for defense by overbuilding. We have a concern about budget deficits and about interest rates and about unemployment - and, again, particularly about things that affect us as human beings. But we are not caught up in the fringe issues, be it liberal or be it conservative.
But what did your warning to the candidates apply to, specifically?
I'm telling them the accumulative effect of trying to appeal to a lot of special-interest groups has the risk of pushing you in the direction of making you appear liberal - and (it) creates problems in being able to move to the center.
Would the AFL-CIO endorsement knock a candidate out of that center you are talking about?
I don't know that it knocks him out of the center, of itself. I think it does make it difficult for him in the South. It becomes an issue to some degree - and thus makes it harder for the candidate to be perceived as being in the center when you have strong labor-union support that is not necessarily popular in the Southern part of the country.
Are you saying that Mondale can't win in the South?
No. But it's more of a problem for Mondale than the other candidates - simply because he has served as vice-president and in the Senate and has the support of many interest groups. It puts him in the perception of being liberal.
I think (South Carolina Democrat Ernest F.) Hollings is concentrating on the issues that are important. Now whether Hollings is a viable candidate for president in the South or anywhere else has yet to be determined. The question is still open. . . .
I think there are a lot of issues of particular interest to the South that may well have the power and discipline to move these Democratic candidates toward the center. That's what I'm saying.