The average American may feel pinched by inflation and frustrated by the rise in energy prices, but he isn't blaming President Carter, Carter for it -- at least not at this point in the campaign.
Although Americans seem convinced generally that Carter is "weak" and "lacks leadership," they are tending to forgive the president as caught in a dilemma that "no one person can resolve."
Asked why the nation is in such an economic bind, many place the blame on Congress, the oil companies and -- in some cases -- even foreign aid expenditures.
Moreover, few voters at this point seem to see anyone on the horizon who could do a better job.
Those are some of the impressions that emerged from a series of discussions with Americans from a variety of income-levels and occupations during a tour of this and five other cities in late October and early November.
The voters' comments, collected informally during dozens of interviews, are in no way intended to serve as a statistically valid sampling. Nevertheless, some trends were pronounced enough to serve as a guide.
Typical of many of responses during the trip were those of Dick and Sandy Cranford, a Holden, Mass., couple who say they definitely feel strapped but aren't ready yet to fault anyone for it.
"Somehow I can't blame Jimmy Carter for this mess -- there's nobody coming down the pike who can do it better," says Mrs. Cranford, a 37-year-old former schoolteacher who now works as a part-time music instructor.
Echoes Dick Cranford, 39, an insurance underwriter: "I don't think Carter has done a good job, but I don't think anyone else can either.
I blame Congress more than the president."
These responses appear to jibe at least partly with recent voter opinion polls, which show Carter holding ground more firmly than thought earlier in comparison with his chief primary challenger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
However, analysts caution that one reason may be it's probably too early to try to translate these frustrations into possible ballot-box counts.
Norbert Schwarz, a politically astute Rockford consultant, says he doesn't think the pinch has been severe enough yet really to push voters into making up their minds. "I don't think they're angry enough," he says.
Indeed, there's plenty of room to argue that the bite hasn't been all that vicious. Many economist believe the economic statistics cited by Carter and other officials may exaggerate the amount of hardship inflation has imposed.
Officially, federal statistics show Americans suffered 3.9 percent decline in their purchasing power over the past year. Prices have risen at a 13.1 percent annual rate, while earnings have gone up only 8.8 percent.
But some analysts believe the difference may be considerably smaller in reality because the comparison is based on the government's Consumer Price Index.
Critics say the CPI, as the measure is called, itself overstates the rise in actual living costs by overemphasizing the jump in mortgage rates and making no allowances for consumers' switching to less-expensive substitutes.
A less-distorted measure, the price index used in the gross national product figures, shows an inflation rate of just under 9 percent, making the decline in real income only marginal so far.
And Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, notes the statistics don't include the "income" from the sale or refinancing of homes, which has bolstered the spending power of many U.S. families.
In fact, the increased equity resulting from home ownership has become such a major factor that Greenspan believes the U.S. already has turned into a "two-class society -- those who own houses and those who don't."
Americans who own homes -- and are able to count their increased value in their balance sheets -- have a heightened "sense of being" that leaves them relatively contented despite a modest loss in purchasing power, Greenspan says.
"A family's standard of living is also a function of its sense of assets, not just its actual cash flow or real income," Greenspan argues. As a result, he says, middle-income Americans, in particular, may not yet feel pinched.
Finally, many Americans have been able to keep up their spending pace by borrowing or sending their spouses out to work. It's mainly the poor, the single-income family and the elderly that really have had to cut back.
Now, however, a growing number of Americans seem ready to begin to accept the reality that U.S. living standards ultimately may have to decline somewhat.
Although President Carter and many leading economists have been warning for months that inflation would force a cutback, consumers so far have shown few signs that they are ready to do that.
But now, discussions with families in six cities across the country show, some Americans are coming to the point where they're about to begin adjusting to the new realities.
The adjustment is proving painful, and won't affect everyone equally or as rapidly. But it's finally beginning to show up. And the shift could mean profound changes in the American psyche and in the political outlook next year.
At the same time, professionals assert they don't necessarily mean that Carter won't suffer as a result of the economic situation when voters go to the polls next spring and autumn.
Mervin Field, the San Francisco-based pollster, asserts that voters "are concerned enough about the economy that if someone appears to be decisive and sounds a clarion call, they'll follow him. "People are in a rallying mood. They're dispirited, sullen," Field says.
Field says his findings show that depsite any caveats now, "the public has made a judgement on President Carter and the judgement is negative.
"If the president is to win, the economy will have to get better," Field asserts. However, he adds hastily, that overall sentiment "is different from pitting" Carter against other candidates.
The voters' responses are interesting because they come in the midst of increasing resignation -- and sometimes quite conflicting conclusions -- about the current economic squeeze.
For some, the economic situation has become so uncertain that families no longer are confident about their ability to maintain their current living standards over the next several months.
Doris Prohaska, a Mason City farm wife, says she and her husband, Bob, "are going to have to go into debt now" to finance new purchases. "For the first time, we're scared," she says. "I'd hate to see us lose it all."
Others feel frustrated because it seems as though inflation is threatening to put an end to the American dream:
"I'd always figured if I worked hard enough and diligent enough, I'd have the money to do what I wanted," says Bennie D. Howie, a Memphis, Tenn., insurance broker. "Now that's not true."
Muses Lyl Harrell, a Columbus, Ga., retiree: "When I used to see a little baby, I used to say, 'God bless your little soul, you have everything you want.' Now I feel sorry for them."
Adds Karen Blomgren, a young Rockford, Ill., housewife: "Most of our friends are in professions, have been to college, and yet don't have any money. 'It's not what I expected."
In a way, this acceptance of the new reality could be a blessing for the U.S. economy, at least over the longer run, at least in the minds of some analysts.
Economists say that Americans have only kept inflation going longer by attempting to maintain their living standards so steadfastly in recent years. A little bit of belt-tightening, they assert, could help wind the spiral down.
When it emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, inflation was supposed to be only a short-term phenomenon, brought on mainly by economic overheating stemming from the Vietnam war. The cure seemed obvious then, albeit unpalatable.
But years of repeated economic shocks -- first from the 1973 grain and sugar price increases, and then from the quadrupling of oil prices -- ultimately convinced the nation that inflation would be a long-lasting thing.
As a result Americans adjusted their lifestyles to help cope with it: More and more couples became two-earner families. Charge accounts burgeoned. And, most recently, homeowners began cashing in on their new-found equity.
All this, of course, merely helps fuel inflation. Buttressed with more money, Americans have continued to spend. And fear of continuing inflation has pushed many to buy now, before the prices rise further.
But the longer-run forces seem to be about to overcome this resistance. The burden of rising oil prices is expected to worsen next year, not get better. And wages are continuing to rise less rapidly than prices.
Typical of many Americans' feelings these days are the frustrations of the Cranfords, the Holden couple that is having trouble staying afloat under a barrage of bills and soaring energy prices.
"I get angry," Dick Cranford concedes. "I feel like I'm working hard, I'm trying to support my family, and I feel I'm in a situation over which I don't have any control. You can only cut back so much."
But Cranford's annoyance isn't directed at President Carter, or at any one single source:
"I get furious," he says, "when I see Texaco (profits) up 211 percent (as they were last quarter). "I get mad at my company when they put on their mantle of self-righteousness and say how they're going to follow the wage-price guidelines when their profits are up."
In Rockford, Sandy Pearson, a psychologist's wife, laments that "I sort of feel I'm in a race or battle to keep control of the money we have. Things we took for granted we now have to fight for."
But there seems to be a resignation among many workers that the situation is larger than life and can't be changed easily or ascribed to any [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] villain."
"I don't know whether you can [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] the blame," says Ron G. Eckhardt, a Mason City policeman. "It's just something that happened, that's all."
Mason City pastor Lavern Hansen agrees. "There's a sort of acceptance of this as inevitable," Hansen says. "People are not trying to do anything about it. Many are blaming [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Many voters join Stan and Belen Deardeuff, another area farm family, in citing the government for not balancing the budget -- a factor many Americans believe is a primary source of the current inflation.
And doris Prohaska voices another often-heard complaint: "It's foreign aid," she says, "and corruption in government."
Talks with consumers indicated Americans still are sharply divided over whether the nation genuinely is facing an energy shortage. Says Tom Legere, a Worcester, Mass., bricklayer: "I don't believe there's a crisis."
And many are furious at the nation's oil companies for a variety of private suspicions ranging from price-fixing to trumping up the notion of a petroleum shortage.
"People think the oil companies are making more of the crisis than there really is," says Sheldon A. Levy, 52, a Portland, Ore., insurance agent. "They don't think it's a real crisis."
Jerry Hill, a Rockford routeman, has some stiffer language. He views the oil industry's performance as "the biggest rape of the American taxpayer in history."
Still, San Francisco's Field asserts there's "no question" the public is troubled about the economy:
His latest sampling shows 2 out of 5 California families feel they're worse off than a year ago, and 31 percent expect the situation will be worse next year -- the highest degree of pessimism since 1961.
But Field's results also show voters have "a lot of reservations about Kennedy," and aren't as tempted at this point to abandon Carter for other condidates.
For now, however, the mood seems difficult to pinpoint, but not yet one of despair. Most Americans are like Ron Eckhardt, the Rockford policeman, whose answer to the inflation problem is just to "tighten down tighter" next year.
And every notch hurts a little more at the polls. CAPTION:
Graph, The Index of Consumer Confidence, By Alice Kresse -- The Washington Post; Illustration, THE SQUEEZE OF '79