ELECTED GOVERNOR of Georgia after a four-year campaign, Jimmy Carter wrote later that he had shaken 600,000 hands and made 1,800 speeches along the way. What kind of a man would keep count? Only the most successful "retail" politician in the country.

Retail campaigning is the politics most Americans know first-hand. Candidates meeting voters face-to-face, exchanging handshakes and introductions. In this form of politics, remembering the Widow O'brien's maiden name and that her son is a fireman is a lot more important than a candidate's white paper on mass transit. Faithful attendance at wakes, weddings and graduation parties does translate into votes on election day.

The retail candidate seeks "customers," one by one. By contrast, the wholesale candiate seeks "market," by appeals to constituencies. The retail candidate writes nobody off; he wants everybody's vote. The wholesale candidate -- whether Franklin Roosevelt, or Richard Nixon, or Robert Kennedy -- understands that the explicit public positions he takes will simultaneously gain and lose for him large chunks of public support.

Jimmy Carter is the consummate retail politician. In 1975, candidate Carter had the time to spend 260 days campaigning. Carter even advertised his strategy in his own book: "In the meantime, I reasoned, I likely would be the only presidential candidate in Sioux City, or in St. Petersburg, or Phoenix, or Rochester." By Jan. 19, 1976, when Iowa Democrats went to their 2,530 individual precinct caucuses in various firehouses, libraries and elementary schools, Jimmy Carter had recruited enough believers to lead. Some 13,334 Iowans -- most of whom he had probably met -- voted for the Georgian and he was a winner heading into New Hampshire.

New Hampshire and Jimmy Carter in March of 1976 were a perfect matched pair. Jimmy Carter retailed his pledge of a balanced federal budget in the only state whose citizens pay neither a state sale tax nor a state income tax. He shook more hands at more plant gates and bowling alleys than anyone else.

Carter came in first with 23,373 votes of the 82,000 cast. Two states, two Carter victories. His joint Iowa-New Hampshire total of 37,000 votes wouldn't have been enough to win him a city council seat in Cincinnati, but the two upsets guaranteed the wholesale coverage most candidates dream of.

But retail doesn't work for presidents. The presidency is a wholesale office. Like Jimmy Carter, 99 percent of his fellow citizens never met a Democratic president. Or a Republican president. We know little of a president's handshake or whether he remembers our niece's college major.

But we do know the president is our only national voice. Unlike the retailer, the president does not speak to some people, a few at a time. The president speaks to all of us at the same time. And the president speaks for all of us, all of the time.

But the pattern of retailing which brought Jimmy Carter from obscurity to national office had been firmly established.

April 18, 1977, the president went to the nation with an energy policy. And President Carter, the wholesaler, became once again Jimmy Carter, the retailer. The calls for common sacrifice and high national purpose were brief. Soon Carter was talking about what, in dollars and cents, the energy program could do for us.

Even in his most important legisaltive victory, Senate ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, Carter proved to be an inept wholesaler. He persuaded 68 United States senators on Panama, but not the American people: good retail, no wholesale.

Now Jimmy Carter is in trouble for renomination and reelection. And like most, his survival instinct will be to return to the strategy and tactics which won for him before.

In 1980, however, he won't be able to drop in on a local activist and tell her something about himself, about how he reorganized the Georgia state government and increased efficiency.

Deprived by the carapace of his office of retail campaigning, Carter will have the option of auditorium speeches or television addresses. Yet he does both badly. What he is doing or not doing as president will eclipse whatever he is saying or not saying as a candidate in Sioux City or Manchester.

After this discouraging analysis, what can Jimmy Carter do? Even Carter's most relentless critics stipulate his intelligence, energy, discipline and stamina. Jimmy Carter is an acknowledged demon on self-improvement, almost "the little engineer that could." It was the teen-age Jimmy Carter who rolled in his bare, flat feet on empty Coke bottles to gain a lift for his arches and admission to Annapolis for himself.

With that anecdote in mind, I propose that President Carter at his first opportunity take a Trailways to Camp David. Once there and alone, he should listen to the recorded speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Who can tell what could come of it? Just maybe that remarkable discipline can transform the South Georgia retail into an eloquet presidential wholesaler. After all, he has surprised the smart money before. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Frank Johnson - The Washington Post