"Jimmy." Please unleash Rosalynn! She has a great grasp, an ability to humanize and she can bring attention to a program. Why is she in the background when she can be in the forefront?"

Liz Carpenter's fantasy plea to Jimmy Carter.

SHE SAT PERFECTLY still at the head table waiting to be introduced. Only her fingers, twisting back and forth, and her occasional gulps of water indicated her nervousness.

In her pale peach Calvin Klein shirtwaist, she looked elegant and delicate, a pretty matron any old-fashioned gentleman would want to protect.

She did not look like the top adviser to the president of the United States, the most powerful woman in the world, the first woman vice president, all of which she was touted as being back when Plains first moved to Pennsylvania Avenue.

She didn't act like a great power broker either.

She stood to address the National Press Club of Washington last week, the first first lady to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt 40 years ago.

"Today," she began in her whispery southern voice, "I'm not nearly as nervous as the first time I came here with Jimmy and he announced he was running for the presidency."

The purpose of the speech, according to her press secretary, Mary Hoyt, was to present Rosalynn Carter's philosophy of the role of a first lady and to explain what special project she hoped to embrace in her years in the White House.

But the speech, which was written, as most of her speeches are, by Hoyt with Rosalynn Carter's corrections and additions, seemed to many in attendance vague and unstructured. She talked about the traditional social role of the first lady, about her own interests in mental health, the elderly and how she hoped to encourage "the caring people" to serve on committees and programs "even in the most prosaic ways."

Rosalynn Carter seemed uncomfortable, her delivery hesitant. She stumbled over an occasioinal word, lost her place and was noticeably relieved when the speech was over.

Then an amazing grace overtook her.

As she took questions from the audience for the next half hour, a different woman emerged. A bright, relaxed competent woman, funny and disarming.

The audience was allowed a rare glimpse of the real first lady, not the "steel magnolia" of instant legend.

She giggled a lot, she told anecdotes, she made fun of herself. She took a few mischievous digs at the press and she handled the questions, some of them quite idiotic, with style and wit.

At one point she was asked if there was any time for President and Mrs. Carter to just sit back and enjoy themselves.

"I hope so," she answered. "We do enjoy weekends at Camp David. We take our briefcases . . ." and she paused, looked shyly out at the audience, giggled again . . . and confessed, "but we don't ever open them. And we do enjoy evenings at home, too. Jimmy, for the first four or five months, would go back to the Oval Office after dinner. But he stopped that way last spring and we do have evenings together with the family. We swim, we watch movies and listen to Amy play her violin." Another giggle. "It's a family. We enjoy it."

The disarmed audience gave her a hearty round of applause.

Finally, when someone asked her whether dancing with members of the press at the White House was different from dancing with real people, she paused for a moment, laughed and replied. "Since so many people say the president and his wife are not real people, I think we could get along beautifully."

Rosalynn Carter has a problem. Her image. She doesn't have one. The question is: Why?

Speculation about why is a major topic around Washington both among worried Carter staffers and seasoned first lady watchers. And there isn't anybody who doesn't have an opinion on where it's all going wrong.

The answer, based on dozens of interviews with those both in and out of the administration has to do with the fact that Rosalynn Carter was falsely advertised to begin with as a powerful political influence over her husband. It has to do with her own lack of clarity about the nature of her role. It has to do with the disdainful attitude of some of the president's own staff toward her side of the White House (the East Wing), with the ineffectuality of her own staff and the lack of cooperation between the East and West Wings.And finally, it has to do with the obvious problems of being, still, a stranger in another town.

In the simplest terms, the problem seems to be this: Rosalynn Carter sees her role in the White Hose as assisting the president, rather than just assuming the role of first lady.

Despite repeated denials from Carter staffers and friends that there is no White House attempt to "package" Rosalynn Carter, she is, nevertheless, being packaged.

During the campaign, as a political morsel for the vocal feminist contingent in the Carter camp, Carter and "the boys" (Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell) decided that Mrs. Carter should be presented as a tough, strong, firm, independent woman rather than the shy, natural, soft woman she is. They portrayed her to the press and the public as the first working first lady, the most powerful and influential adviser to the president, the first woman vice president, as it were, the next Eleanor Roosevelt. They informed the public that she would hold regular press conferences like the president, that she would take on substantive projects of her own and see them through. They were trying to package her.

And they're still doing it. As late as three weeks ago members of Carter's staff fed a story to The New York Times saying that she was "even more influential than Eleanor Roosevelt."

Carter's staff put Rosalynn Carter in that position. And Rosalynn Carter, of course, trying to help out and do the right thing, went along with it. She tried to act serious, tough and determined, like the steel magnolia image that had been sold, when, in fact, she was a wife and mother dedicated to her family, only unsure of herself as a politican.

What have not been promoted are the natural, spontaneous aspects of her personality that were so effective during the campaign and the other day at the National Press Club.

As a result, most of the time she ends up looking like a cold, humorless robot instead of what she really is.

Partly because her "toughness" has been misinterpreted. What toughness can be found in her character is simply her natural fierce protectiveness of her family against any outside threat, including those to her husband's political career. Her Influence

Probably one of the most puzzling aspects of Rosalynn Carter's role as first lady to the public is the original promotion of her, which promised a much more influential role.

Well, it just ain't so. According to many who have worked closely with the president, Rosaylnn Carter has exactly as much influence on Jimmy Carter as the average married woman has on her husband. Which is not to be sneezed at, but hardly to be feared. And, as has often been pointed out, why should she? It was, after all, her husband who was elected.

"I am disappointed in her altogether," says feminist Gloria Steinem. "I try to be reasonable because of the initial comparison with Eleanor Roosevelt. That made the problem. She has a lot in common with Patricia Nixon. That determination that people are out there trying to get us so we're going to stick together and see it through. She's very thin-skinned, like the Nixons.

"I don't know a single reporter in Washington who feels they know Rosalynn," says NBC producer and People magazine correspondent Clare Crawford. "She's all but disappeared from the face of the earth. In an attempt to prove that she is not a housewife but that she is Jimmy's intellectual equal, she now has the newsworthiness of the undersecretary of commerce."

"Rosalynn wants to do what she's supposed to do," says a White House correspondent who has covered the Carters for several years. "In this case she doesn't know what she's supposed to do and nobody will tell her.

"Jimmy," he says, "does what he damn well pleases. She occasionally sprinkles his mind with a little wisdom that makes sense. And Rosalynn thinks that's just fine. Her influence, whatever, it may be, is impressionistic. Theirs is no different from any other Southern marriage. It's my opinion she doesn't have much impact on him politically. However, the kind of woman and the nest she builds certainly does."

One former staffer feels that, as in most marriages where the man has all the power, the woman feels free to criticize him while he is very careful to by supportive and encouraging of her little projects.

"She criticizes Jimmy all the time," says this person. "It's become almost a cliche. But he's very supportive of her. Almost worshipful. She can do no wrong. It would have to be a major blunder on her part for him to criticize her."

The White House often points to the weekly luncheons Rosalynn Carterr has with the president in the Oval Office as an example of her influence on the president.

However, Rosalynn Carter's own explanation of her weekly meetings with her husband, more than anything else, substantiates a growing feeling that she is not the most powerful, or influential adviser the president has. On the contrary, she is hardly one at all.

In her speech at the National Press Club she said, "When Jimmy and I first came to Washington, every night I was trying to sneak in a question - or ask him about something a decision had to be made about.And it just didn't work that way. Evey time he got relaxed, I would spring some big decision at him." Finally, she said, he suggested that she come to have lunch with him once a week like Vice President Mondale. "It's a very important meeting to me," she said.

There is one area in which Rosalynn Carter does have influence over the president and that is the one area in which she is somewhat knowledgeable, mental health. Having worked on it in Georgia and having been honorary chairman in the Mental Health Commission this past year, she is in a position to advise. For instance, HEW had recommended that the Community Health Program be funded a certain amount of money and OMB refused the request. HEW appealed and got nowhere. Then, through Tom Bryant, chairman of the President's Commission on Mental Health, and a close adviser of Rosalynn Carter's she got in the act, called OMB head McIntire over. She overruled him. He changed his decision after he met with her.

She has now gotten a commitment of $500 million to supplement the Mental Health Report by appealing to her husband. Her Role

One reason why Rosalynn Carter has made so little impact and has such a fuzzy image is that she has taken on one project after another, then dropped it and gone on to something else. The only one she has concentrated on is mental health and even that has fizzled out since the Mental Health Report was issued earlier this spring.

One former staffer has this to say. "If you choose mental health as your talisman then you've got to go with it; it's too heavy a subject to speak out, and then drop it."

"My experience with the mental health commission is that the story got out in an interesting way," says Tom Bryant. "It had a whale of an impact on the mental-health community. But I don't think that the public is overly aware of Rosalynn's involvement. Mental health is not a sexy topic. Rosalynn is a very complicated. She sees herself more involved with her husband across the board, but I think her strongest suit is mental health. Those are building blocks, and if done right, in two or three years people can say, "That lady had impact."

"I don't know why it's so difficult for people to expect this stereotype approach that she should have one project," says Mary Hoyt. "That a single project is an image.She has many interests and they all fit neatly together. But it isn't easy. People are frustrated because they all want her to have a slogan, a title, a name for a project. But it's broader and deeper than that. I don't know if she ever even thinks about it (the fuzziness of her image).

"She has been doing many fragmented projects. Now she's going to try to turn people on across the country to help each other. That seems like a neat, understandable thing to us here because we've been talking to her about it."

"But how do you make that effective?" Hoyt rolls her eyes and throws her hands up in the air in an air of resignation. "It will, well, EVOLVE. Maybe that's not a nice way to discuss a role, But that's the way it is."

"Rosalynn has the same problem as the president," says a person who has worked closely with Rosalynn Carter for a long time, both in Georgia and in the White House.

"They themselves are kind of fuzzy about what they are all about. So it's hard to present them in a clear positive way; she is interested in a lot of things, she never really goes through with them. It's like projectus interruptus."

"The reason Rosalynn loses interest in her projects is because everything she does in her life is for Jimmy, trying to make him look good. If you don't have the passive yourself to see the job through then it doesn't get done. She is deeply passionate about one thing. Her husband."

Gloria Steinem says, "She never appears to say anything separate from him. More than any other president's wife I have seen there is no independent thought or phrasing separate from his."

Someone who has occasionally sat in on Rosalynn Carter's staff meetings says that no matter what she is talking about she always prefaces her remarks with "Jimmey thinks and Jimmey feels and Jimmey says" as though she is simply parroting what he tells her to do. "It gets on your nerves," says this staffer.

"I don't think that she should worry about her image too much," says Barry Jagoda, Carter's media man. "But she should set out to do what she and her husband think she should do. To be as strong and effective as possible."

Rosalynn Carter is beginning to be unfavorably compared with other first ladies, many of whom, whether or not they had an impact, at least had a clear image.

Jackie Kennedy was known for her chic, her taste, her style and her redecoration of the White House.

Lady Bird Johnson had beautification. Patricia Nixon, though hardly dynamic, chose volunteerism and struck with it, projecting the role of housewife and helpmate. Betty Ford was known for her candor, her courage in coping with her breast cancer, her outspoken support for ERA. But when one mentions the name of Rosalynn Carter, many people draw a blank.

Now she is even being unfavorably compared to the wife of the vice president, normally a figure in Washington with not so high a profile at all.

Joan Mondale is more identifiable than Rosalynn Carter. And, too, she has chosen as her press secretary-adviser, Bess Abell, who worked for Lady Bird Johnson and knows the town, and Joan Mondale has listened to her advice.

"Joan Mondale," says someone who has worked closely with Rosalynn Carter and observed Mondale as well, "is a creature of this city and so is Bess. She knows where to press the levers. She doesn't do things halfway. She's not trying to create an image as much as she is trying to do a job. She has chosen one thing, the arts, and stuck with it. And she's created her own identity, which is totally separate from Fritz. Yet by doing so she has been a true asset to him, rather than just a helpmate."

"Lady Bird Johnson," says former Johnson stafer who worked intimately with her and knows Rosalynn Carter fairly well, too, "fairly of all chose two pros. Liz Carpenter and Bess Abell, and she listened to them. Secondly, she chose a project, beautification, that was specific, clear, easily understandable and that people could relate to."

"At no time," says a former East Wing staffer, "was anything dramatic attempted to underscore her projects, and if you do them in a spotty was there will be a limited amount of coverage. The whole world is hardly waiting for Rosalynn's next pronouncement on mental health the way they were for Betty Ford's next remarks for instance."

"You've got to have a base or a concept to work with, a direction," says Sheila Weidenfeld, Betty Ford's former press secretary.

"Let's face it," says Mary Hoyt, "what Rosalynn is doing is an extension of the president."

But that can sometimes produce meager results. According to one former staffer, Rosalynn Carter's South American trip had little impact because South American leaders treated "her exactly as they would any wife of an Amercian persident": politely and nothing more, with some macho types reportedly grumpy that the president himself had not come.

"I'm no expert on what the role of the first lady should be," says Bob Strauss, Carter's special counsel on inflation and Washington expert. "But there are several things I do know about with respect to Rosalynn Carter. She can do just about anything she sets out to do, very well and very effectively. She's an able, wise and talented person. There are very subtle and not so subtle areas where she plays a significant role. But I would agree that there is a larger role she could play on the national scene." The West Wing

Both inside the immediate White House staff and outside, tales of woe on the image front were rifle, even among those most powerful in the government, even those who are pro the president and the first lady. Not one person out of more than 30 interviewed failed to recognize that there was a serious problem not only with Rosalynn Carter's image but with the president's as well. As usual, nobody wants to be quoted on the record. Their jobs depend on it.

From the interviews, the following picture emerges:

One of the reasons why Rosalynn Carter has not made much of an impact as first lady is a lack of coodination with and support from the West Wing of the White House, the president's domain, whose press operation is run by Jody Powell. Partly this is because "the boys" Jody and Hamilton Jordan, have never had a great rapport with Rosalynn Carter. Partly because they don't get along withe her staff, partly because they have not been directed by the president to get involved and partly becasue there is so much infighting and indecision going on in Powell's press office that they don't have time. But the main reason is that Carter himself is something less than a liberated man. He basically sees his wife as wife, mother, hostess. Nor have Powell and Jordan been known for their advanced attitudes about women.

None of them appears to realize that the East Wing of the White House, the first lady's side, is or could be a very important asset to them and the president. Powell is so frustrated in his dealings with Mary Hoyt that he has hinted several times recently that he believes that she will be fired. He has even gone so far as to suggest that he would like to see a man in that job becuase he would be easier to relate to.

The West Wing is apparently disgusted with the whole East Wing operation. Jody Powell is upset that Jerry Rafshoon, Carter's media man during the campaign, will be coming to the White House next week as head of communications. The two have never gotten along and Powell is afraid Rafshoon will usurp some of his power. Already Barry Jagoda has begun answering to Rafshoon rather than Powell, and Rosalynn Carter has expressed a hope that Rafshoon will be able to solve the image problem where Powell could not.

"I think," says a Carter intimate who is very close to Rafshoom, "that Jerry will be able to give Rosalynn and her staff direction, in terms of her role. He is the only one who can do it. She trusts him entirely.

Rafshoon himself, aware of the delicacy of his situation, could not be reached for comment under any circumstances.

Jody Powell refused to comment, as well.

"The relationship between Rosalynn's staff and Jimmy's staff, particularly Jody and Ham, is hate. Hate. Kill. Kill," says one former staffer with a wry laugh. "It's sad because it always seemed to me that Mary wanted Jody's good will and advice."

Mary is an uptown sophisticated lady. The fellows are put off by this. She looks so fixed up. These guys are not used to that."

"The East and West Wings have got to be coordinated," says a Carter administration type who has been around Washington for years and has worked with Rosalynn Carter, Hoyt and Powell. "Everybody has got to be singing out of the same hymn book. Then you can say. 'This month we're pushing health insurance' or 'This is get tough with the Russians months.' Otherwise the picture of the government does not come into focus."

"The problem," says a White House television reporter, "is Carter. He is not a totally liberated person. He wants Rosalynn to be active but he wants her to fill a certain role and no more. He wants to be proud of the little woman."

A powerful woman White House correspondent says, "Women don't play an important role in the policy-making in the Carter administration. The West Wing has never wanted to have anything to do with the first lady. They treat the East Wing with disdain. The impact of women is not strongly felt in a Georgia White House."

"Jody and Hamilton do not get along terribly well with Rosalynn," says a White House correspondent who has covered the Carters for several years. "Their primary motivation with her is to keep her pleased, to avoid making her unhappy at the risk of World War III. Otherwise she could make their lives miserable. But they don't feel that way about Mary Hoyt or the rest of the staff. They just don't pay any attention to them.

"I think Rosalynn Carter came in with tremendous potential and the desire of Americans to see her be a very visible, hard-working, precedent-breaking first lady," says Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson when LBJ wass President.

"If some timid soul in the West Wing, some underling, has the idea that America's first ladies must be consigned to the background, let them read the history and know that the ones whowere substantive were those whose deeds were sometimes shocking, sometimes consciousness-raising, always courageous. We need Rosalynn Carter out rallying for us every hour of the day."

And Hoyt says, "Maybe now that Rafshoon is coming there will be more cooperation than there has been. There really has been very little. The East Wing

"Rosalynn Carter works harder than any first lady I have known and she's very serious," says UPI White House bureau chief Helen Thomas. "But communicating what she's done is where the breakdown is. I don't think it's her style to dramatize or capture the limelight. But she's very dedicated. She's just not projecting. Why? That's the $64,000 question."

"I have a view that the press people working for Rosalynn are virtually worthless," says a male staffer in Carter's press operation.

"It's ridiculos that such a spectacular woman as Rosalynn has such a limp image. But every time we send an idea over the transom they 'eeeek' like they're seen a mouse. Press people can be obstaclee and Mary is a tremendous obstacle. She is political and frightened and she's always looking over her shoulder. She never seizes an opportunity. She's mistrustful of everyone. In my view that whole operation could be the greatest possible resource for the president, and it's not. The first family is the greatest resource we have. I just told Jody I couldn't work with her or the staff and he said, 'I know what you mean.' However I sense that Rosalynn really trusts Mary Hoyt. So to some extent it's an attack on Rosalynn because, of her choice of Mary."

"I think we've been too separate from the West Wing," is all Hoyt will say, guardedly, not wanting to seem too critical. "So some of us go to the weekly staff meetings over there. I think this new Carter reorganization will be helpful."

"There's never been anybody who worked harder, was more compassionate and understanding," says Rick Hutto, Rosalynn Carter's former appointments secretary who quit last fall, "but she never had her own staff really, until the general campaign, and I thinkher staff would understand her more if they'd been with her as long as the president's has."

A Carter staffer who has worked closely with Rosalynn Carter on mental health as well as other issues says simply. "If the mental health program doesn't work for Rosalynn then I would blame it on Mary. Mary puts up a wall around Rosalynn that is hard to penetrate. It bests me what her motivation is. But Mary Hoyt writes Rosalynn's mental health speeches as well as her others and often doesn't even ask the experts for advice or outside help. I know of several occassions when she has been offered material and never used it. What Mary uses as her resources I don't know. It's not my job to tell her what she should or shouldn't write."

"We have Kathy Cade who is the director of projects and issues and she does general research," says Hoyt about Rosalynn Carter's speeches. "Then, if we need specific research on something like mental heath we'll ask Tom Bryant.

Since Coates Redmon quit as speech-writer, Hoyt has been writing all of Rosalynn Carter's speeches. A West Wing press staffer has said that Rafshoon's top priority will be to find a speechwriter for Rosalynn.

"During the campaign when Mrs Carter was talking about issues and about her husband, she almost always spoke extemporaneously," says Hoyt, "and I think she's at her best when she's extemporaneous.

"But she feels more secure with a text. It's rare though that she's given a speech she doesn't change herself. She deviates a great deal.

"There are so many political points that could be made by the family," says a former staffer who admires Rosalynn Carter. "But nobody knows anything about them, especially the human side of Rosalynn. People don't even hear about her natural spontaneous side. They don't hear about when she walks into a staff meeting and asks 'Que Pasa?' after her Spanish lesson, or how she runs around upstairs in the family quarters in blue jeans and a campaign T-shirt, how she makes fun of herself playing the violin and jokes about how Amy says she is so awful at it, missing notes all the time. They don't tell about how she finished playing tennis one day and just jumped into the White House pool with all her tennis clothes on."

"Mary's whole attitude is don't rock the boat, don't make major blunders and you'll survive. But maybe Rosalynn is telling her this, saying I want no profile, I don't want to be in the paper all the time. But I doubt it."

"I do feel," says another former staffer of the first lady's, "that Rosalynn is not being presented as well as she could be . . . But Mary does her job well. It's difficult to get a handle on Rosalynn. And she's not accessible to her staff, except for Madeline Macbean, her personal assistant who came with her from Georgia. When I needed her I could get her but you couldn't just sit around and chat."

"I think Mrs. Carter defies packaging," says Hoyt. "We spend a lot of time around here responding to this first lady. Which is different. She likes what she is doing. And she can't understand why people aren't more interested in her mental health projects.

"People have drifted away from it," admits Hoyt. "But if it's dull to sit in a meeting for eight hours and listen to the problems of the mentally ill, so be it. It's not dramatic. But I don't know who decreed that everything a first fady does has to be dramatic." Washington

There are those who feel that one of the reasons that Rosalynn Carter, and Jimmy Carter for that matter, have had such image problems, found it so hard to get their message across, is that they and most of their staff are just not familiar with Washington, with the jargon, the mores, the attitudes and, most importantly, the people. And they still don't understand the press.

"She's a very determined, very intelligent, politically caring lady," says Rosalynn Carter's former speech writer, Coates Redmon, who quit in disillusion six months ago. "So the question is this. If you want to have an impact and you have a big staff behind you and a president who is supportive, how could you not have an impact?

"It may be that here are these people coming here cold, having been here three times in their lives and they move into the power house. There's a freak-out potential. There must be a sense of disorientation that may account for the way she deals with her issues.

"Washington is an overpowering place. It takes years to know your way around. But time is skipping by. My feeling is that Joan Mondale's advantage over Rosalynn is that she has a total understanding of her environment. That's got to matter."

"Look at Joan Mondale, for instance," says one Carter staffer, "she knows everybody, she can walk into a room and call people by their names. She knows how things work, where the bodies are buried. She knows the totems and taboos. That's got to give her a confidence the Carters have never had."

"Rosalynn has not had many of the experiences and the exposure of Washington that she had in Georgia," says Peter Bourne, the president's special assistant for health issues. "She had flexibility as a governor's wife to pick up and do what she wanted to do. It's incredibly hard to do anything spontaneously from the White House because you set everything in motion. But she just doesn't get much publicity here and I don't know why."

"They're both very naive in this respect," says a former staffer. "They believe that they're right with God. And if what they're doing is right everything will work out for the best. But the problem is that things don't work that way in the real world."

Someone who has known both Carters "since before it was even chic to go to Plains," and is now a member, though distant, of the administration, said he had finally figured out what it was that has bothered him when he has been around Rosalynn Carter, particularly at Washington functions.

"I see a look in Rosalynn's eyes," he says, "that you see in foreigners who don't speak English very well. They find themselves involved in a slangy conversation and they begin to nod and smile and laugh very animatedly and suddenly you realize that they don't understand half of what is being said. That's the feeling you get with Rosalynn. You begin to realize that she's over her head."

About a month ago, Rosalynn Carter was the guest speaker at a gathering of the Foundations Council at the Shoreham Americana Hotel.

She was even more nervous than she was at the National Press Club.

However, at one point she broke away from her rather turgid text to talk about a visit she had just made to a local halfway house. Again she came alive and the audience immediately warmed to her.

During this spontaneous moment, she remarked that there was such a spirit of cooperation in Washington and with a certain innocent amazement at her own influence, confided to the audience that "I don't believe that I've asked one single person to help me and been turned down."

The audience howled with laughter and it was moments before she understood why they were laughing.

But it didn't take her long.

Carefully and deliberately placed right up there in her speech at the National Press Club was a line Rosalynn Carter used, looking up confidently from her text and playing it for all it was worth.

"I pick up the White House phone at any hour of the day or night and frequently ask the advice and counsel of experts in any field," she told them, this time with a conscious innocence in her voice. "I do it often . . ." Pause for effect . . . "And nobody ever turns me down."

Once again the audience laughed with delight as the first lady stood beaming, obviously at ease, for once, with the pleasures of power.