Heat waves shimmer above the blacktop of Main Street, and inside the Hugh Carter Antique Shop there is little relief from the humidity as the cousins embrace.

"Mr. President," says Cousin Beedie, author, "Hello, Hugh," says Cousin Hot, president.

They are standing in a shop that advertises antiques but sells mainly bric-a-brac about Jimmy Carter and peanuts and Plains.

Behind them are stacks of Hugh Carter's book "Cousin Beedie and Cousin Hot," which contains anecdotes that did not please the president's mother, Lillian, or his brother, Billy, and which apparently needs considerable help in the commercial marketplace that is Plains.

"The author will autograph," reads a sign near Jimmy Carter's right hands. "Buy a book -- best souvenir in town," reads another near his left hand. "This book costs $12.50 in bookstores ALL OVER THE WORLD -- HERE only $9.95 autographed, with your name in in," reads a third.

"How bad is business?" the president asks.

"It's pretty bad," Cousin Hugh replies, "But it's a lot of factors. We're not in the news much now. I'm only doing one-third of what I did in 1977. It's the gas crunch, but it's also not being in the news."

Hugh Carter is speaking in euphemisms, as he is being kind to Cousin Jimmy. He talks about Carter's Plains not being in the news, but he means that the news about Carter has not been good.

The president and his wife, Rosalynn, spent three hours today walking through every shop in Plains, receiving friendly greetings and good wishes, and not once did anyone directly mention that his standing in the polls is low and that the public seems to have turned off to him.

On Main Street, Carter is still king. But the people who make their living selling memorabilia of him have become painfully aware of the economics of politics: The reign in Plains falls mainly at the bank. The polls are down, and the profits on Main Street are following.

When Hugh Carter says that business is one-third of what it was in Carter's first year as president, Jimmy Carter passes on some encouraging words from the governor of Florida. "Bob Graham told me in Florida that the tourist business is picking up," he says.

Across the tracks from Main Street is Billy Carter's gas station, once his pride but now run by a 24-year-old named Mark Fuller, who had the inside track for the job because he married Billy's daughter not long ago.

The president grabs Fuller's arm with both hands and pumps an enthusiastic handshake. The enterprising Fuller has made some changes in the gas station, which had been known for its grime and graffiti. He has hung pictures of the president on the freshly whitewashed walls and has added a sign that tells old customers: "Don't Write on Wall!"

Business is not good, Fuller tells Carter, but he thinks a backyard barbecue might boost it.

For three hours, Carter seems a man at ease with himself and happy to be home. Good wishes seem to be everywhere.

In the Peanut Patch, he meets Virginia and Frank Williams -- he was once a Carter adversary in the peanut warehouse business and now his son and daughter-in-law are trying to make a go of it with a souvenir shop that capitalizes on the warehouseman who made it to the White House. Virginia Williams tells Rosalyn Carter she hopes things will turn out well for the president, "I'd write you and tell you, but I'm afraid you wouldn't get it," Virginia Williams says, "So I figured I'd just tell you when you got back here."

Next door is the Peanut Museum. Outside it, the president laughingly calls attention to his political travails by calling a 9-year-old boy from Tennessee over to him so that Photographers can take their picture.

Carter points to the boy's T-shirt, which reads: "Improve Your Image -- Be Seen With Me."

"I need that," Carter says.

Over at the Plains Hardware Store, Jerry Wise tells the president that the road to the Carter pond house has been paved. "It would have been paved a long time ago," says the president, "except mama didn't want it paved."

At one point Carter asks, 'how's Mr. Joe?" He refers to Joe Bacon, an oldtimer whom he calls, "a country philosopher -- he knows all about Aristotle and Plato -- but he's a right-wing country philosopher. The worst day of his life was when Truman fired MacArthur."

Carter also recalls how Bacon threw a party on election night in 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon, and how Carter was invited even though "I was the only Kennedy supporter around -- the only one who was vocal, anyway."

A while later Carter asks, "How's Miss Rachel?" On the street about five minutes later, he runs into 89-year-old Rachel Clark, who is wearing a pink dress and a straw hat and carrying a cardboard fan and a cane.

"Miss Rachel was the best cotton picker I've ever seen," Carter says. "She once picked 400 pounds of cotton in a single day, and the best I ever did was 250." Rachel Clark beams and replies, "He loved to tote cotton."

There is a stop at the post office and a stop at the Plains Primary Clinic, where Carter steps onto an upright scale, slides the weights and announces: "One fifty-one with all my clothes on."

Finally they are at the Plains Peanut Plantation, which is not a plantation but a place of plastic souveniring.

The Carters have spent three hours covering two blocks, with nothing but fond wishes and regards from people along the way.

Three hours -- I can't believe it," says Rosalynn Carter, wiping perspiration from her forehead. Says the president: "It takes longer to walk through Plains that it used to."