If Jimmy Carter is on the trial of a come-from-behind upset victory, it's news to Harry Truman's old home town. A survey here shows that while Carter enjoys general respect for honesty, it is chiefly partisan Democrats who like his record enough to want four more years.
Ronald Reagan, by contrast, scores on foreign policy -- thanks largely to negative feelings about the president's handling of Iran. But Reagan's edge is dulled by worry that he might be "hotheaded" enough to work the country into another war.
Those are impressions of a long, "focus group" discussion conducted the other day by Washington pollster Peter Hart. The "focus group" in Independence was very much like one I visited with Hart in William McKinley's home town -- Canton, Ohio -- after the Republican convention.
The group included five men and six women, ranging in age from 21 to 60. They were all white and Christian. Family income ran from below $10,000 annually for one person to about $25,000 for four of the participants. Four of the group listed themselves as Democrats, four as Republicans and three as Independents.
"What hopes do you have for the country in the decade of the '80s?" was Hart's first question to the group. Getting inflation under control was the unanimous immediate response. "I have trouble making it to the next payday," David Mills, a 27-year-old hospital maintenance man, complained.
Hope for a "better foreign policy" came next on the wish list. Judith Gutekunst, a 45-year-old housewife married to an engineer, said: "I hate to see the United States in second or third place. I'd like to see the United States be No. 1 in the '80s." Thomas Rowland, a 27-year-old factory worker, expressed resentment as "third-rate countries kicking us around." In that vein, virtually everybody mentioned in bitter tones the hostages held in Iran.
From hopes for the 1980s, Hart switches the topic to realistic expectations. Everybody agreed inflation would not be mastered. "Congress," "the bureaucracy" and "government spending" were all cited as reasons.
However, there was a feeling the country could realistically expect to do better in foreign policy. One member of the group thought improvement would come if more people were willing to serve in the military. Valie Robbins, a 24-year-old sales representative, said that "with so many people wanting and hoping," we could do better. She was applauded when she gave as her reason "because I'm an eternal optimist."
But accompanying hope for a stronger American position was concern it might lead to trouble. The group was unanimous in believing there would be a war in the next decade. One person said all that had so far prevented a fight between Russia and the United States was "luck." Another said, in a cynical reference to Korea and Vietnam, that when war came, it would be called "a conflict."
Hart then asked the group their views of the two main candidates. When the original responses proved fuzzy. Hart forced the point by asking how Carter and Reagan compared with Harry Truman.
Reagan was described as "conservative" and "strong." A woman wondered whether he "did his homework" and cited his call for relations with Taiwan before sending George Bush off to Peking. Another woman called Reagan "hotheaded." Carter was called "honest" and "intelligent," but also "weak" and "wishy-washy." Someone said Truman had more "backbone." Someone else said Truman would have gotten the hostages out of Iran "even if he had to send 140 helicopters."
At the end, six persons said they were voting for Reagan, three for Carter and two were undecided and thinking about John Anderson. The Carter support came from two women who had identified themselves as Democrats and a 21-year-old college graduate who said he was an Independent. The Reagan voters included four Republicans, one Independent and a Democrat. The Independent said she would vote for Reagan "provided I'm not disappointed . . ."
My own sense is that, among the sample, the race is open, but with a bias for Reagan. All he has to do is demonstrate restraint and coolness. Carter has to show he has had a vertebra transplant.