Jesse Jackson's return to a triumphant hero's welcome in his hometown - netting the city's medal of merit for his Syrian rescue mission, but not the mayor's endorsement for his presidential aspirations - may yet translate into strong Chicago voter support.
The Rev. Mr. Jackson has long been controversial among blacks and whites in this city. Some have felt that his considerable flare for publicity in a variety of causes has never been matched by careful follow-through.
''For the last eight to 10 years Jackson has been more respected outside Chicago than in the city, but I think that picture may change,'' says political strategist Don Rose, who has managed successful campaigns for several black aldermanic candidates and others opposed to the regular Democratic Party machine. ''I think he's recovered a lot of the credibility in the black community that he might have lost earlier.''
Enthusiastic, largely black crowds greeted Jackson everywhere he went on his first day home. Tommy Green II, who runs a hog farm in St. Anne, Ill., drove the 65 miles to catch a glimpse of Jackson at City Hall. ''I've always admired . . . him.'' Whom would he support for President? ''It would be a tossup between Jackson and (Alan) Cranston,'' Mr. Green says.
And John Shawler, a hospital administrator also in the City Hall crowd, says he would definitely vote for Jackson if given a choice now. ''He's shown concern where others haven't, and I think good things come to people who do good things for other people.'' Still, Mr. Shawler says he has a feeling Jackson will end up as a power broker rather than a nominee - ''but maybe he can do more things that way.''
Jackson's bid for Chicago voter support in this case must go through Mayor Harold Washington, elected last April as this city's first black leader.
The mayor is running as a favorite-son candidate in the March 20 primary in several congressional districts. Jackson has said he will not divide that voter coalition to run a separate slate.
The mayor's ongoing City Council fight with Edward Vrdolyak, head of the Democratic Party of Cook County, a group that endorsed Walter Mondale last fall, is one of several reasons the mayor did not leap on the Mondale bandwagon early on as some analysts expected.
Now that Jackson is running, the mayor, who has traveled from Boston to Seattle to campaign for black candidates since his election, cannot easily endorse another candidate. Though the two are longtime allies in many respects, Mayor Washington has often said that Jackson has every right to run but that defeating Ronald Reagan must remain the Democrats' primary goal.
Yet as many as half the delegates on the Washington slate - people such as the Rev. Willie Barrow of PUSH - are clearly Jackson loyalists. And many political analysts here expect the Washington delegates to go for Jackson on at least the first ballot at the Democratic convention.
Likely, too, says Mr. Rose, is a mayoral endorsement for Jackson in the March presidential preference or ''beauty contest'' vote. Though he stresses that the vote is meaningless, he says that Jackson may lead the pack in Chicago if Democratic votes are evenly divided among Jackson, Mondale, and John Glenn.
More than a third of Chicago's voters are black. The city's three predominantly black congressional districts - First, Second, and Seventh - are virtually sure to be carried by the mayor's slate and will account for about 20 percent of the elected Illinois Democratic delegates.
University of Chicago political scientist Gary Orfield, a Mondale supporter who lives in the First District, explains that it has not been easy for him or other supporters to gather enough signatures from black voters to get Mr. Mondale's delegates on the ballot there. And he suggests that this difficulty may be one reason that candidate Alan Cranston gallantly announced this week that he would defer to Mayor Washington and not run a competing slate of delegates in the three majority-black Chicago districts.