Carolyn Cohen is a 37-year-old divorced mother who supports herself and her son, Adam, by working as a kindergarten teacher in a day-care center in this New England town. Recently, she tried to explain her contradictory feelings about presidential leadership.

Cohen, a registered Democrat, began with a remark that suggested a desire for stronger leadership in the White House: "President Carter is not as strong as he ought to be."

But then she acknowledged the new realities facing any president: "Since the impeachment of Nixon, we've seen how important Congress is. We used to think that the president was supreme and all-powerful. That's changed with Congress, Of course, we also elect the Congress."

Of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy: "I think Kennedy's record in Congress is something I admire." But then she suggested that things had changed since his brother John was president: "But I'm not sure what Kennedy would be able to do as president. I'm fighting with myself to seperate him from John Kennedy."

Cohen ended by expressing the frustrations of many Americans of all ages in this era that has seen unprecedented inflation, Americans held hostage abroad and a never-ending oil shortage: "It was so much nicer when we were 18, 19 and 20. When we thought that things in Washington worked the way-they were supposed to."

Something new is happening to many American voters, and Carolyn Cohen is part of it. These voters have lowered their expectations of what any president can accomplish; they have accepted the notion that this country may never again have heroic, larger-than-life leadership in the White House.

That is the conclusion to be drawn from interviews about presidential leadership with voters here in Manchester, as well as from survey data and conversations with campaign consultants and pollsters working for presidential candidates in both parties.

Some voters have entirely discarded textbook notions about presidential greatness and believe that Carter is doing as good a job as anyone could in facing new and difficult problems and in coping with an independent and restive Congress.

Others, like Cohen, are torn between an emotional desire for a strong leader in the White House and an awareness that the country and its problems have changed since the presidency was held by Harry Truman or John Kennedy. h

But there remains a sizable segment of the electorate that still applies traditional standards in assessing Carter's performance in office. These voters look for results and tend to hold Carter responsible for inflation, the energy crisis and what they perceive as the weakness of American foreign policy.

Gary Orre, the in-house director of polling for the Kennedy campaign, explained the cleavage he sees in the electorate.

"One thing is clear," he said, "Americans' confidence in their government is at a real low point. However, that translates into two contradictory things. One is lower expectations of government and the other is I'm mad as hell and I can't take it anymore.'

"That's what makes this election so exciting. [Ronald] Regan, [John] Connally and Kennedy all speak to the need to shake things up, the desire for bold leadership. On the other hand, Carter is appealing to those who say, 'Don't rock the boat, we need to take a safe course.'

"Ultimately, what may decide this election is the ratio between these two responses."

Bonnie Cotie, who is in her late 30s, sat at a small, plastic-covered table, filled with the debris of employe lunches, just off the sales floor at the Burlington Coat Factory Store in Manchester where she works as the assistant manager.

Although Cotie, a registered Republican, said that "I like Reagan, except for his age," she answered with a sharp, angry "no" when asked whether she expected much from the next president.

Cotie believes that in a presidential election, "you take the lesser of two evils," but she is also angry over Carter's performance in office. "He can't handle it," she said. "Anybody could have done a better job. A monkey could have."

But Cotie, who thinks that Reagan would "take a firmer stand on foreign policy, instead of letting us get pushed around," also does not expect Reagan, or anyone else, to do much about the price of heating oil and gasoline. "It's gone beyond help," she said.

Leadership is this year's code word for Carter's challengers in both parties. The 10-letter word has become a convenient short-hand for those pointing out the perceived short-comings of the Carter administration.

In late October, Kennedy declared, "We want leadership that inspires the people, not leadership that abdicates its responsibility or blames the people for the malaise."

Republican John Connally, who has built his campaign around the need for toughness in the White House, proclaimed in his first television commercial, "Leadership, first, is courage, leadership is vision, leadership is an understanding of our people."

When he announced his candidacy, Ronald Reagan said, "The citizens of this great nation want leadership." George Bush puts it this way, "The bottom line on presidential leadership is competence."

Yet, regardless of their feelings about Carter, few voters here in Manchester, the state that will hold the first presidential primary Feb. 26, see the leadership issue in these one-dimensional terms.

Take, for example, Douglas Perkins, the 48-year-old executive director of the United Way of the greater Manchester area. "I don't want a leader who will go out and accomplish the wrong things," he said. "Number one, is he for the right policies? And number two, does he have the leadership to get them accomplished."

Perkins, an independent who says he will vote in the Republican primary, sees Connally as a "Texas wheeler-dealer" and an amusing diversion, rather than a serious political alternative.

"For entertainment, I love to see Big John on the tube, he can really get an audience going," Perkins said. "But I've been around long enough to understand what Big John is."

Data from polls conducted before the current crisis in Iran and Afghanistan tend to support the impression that at least half of the voters have lowered their standards for judging a president's performance.

The Roper Organization, in an unpublished poll conducted in late August, asked a national sample of 2,008 adults whether "President Carter is doing well as anyone could . . ." in dealing with inflation, the energy shortage and unemployment. A consistent response, ranging from 49 to 55 percent of those polled, believed that Carter was coping with these problems as well as could be expected.

This survey supports similar findings in two Washington Post polls conducted in mid- and late July, one after Carter's energy speech and the other after the Cabinet shake-up. These surveys of 1,278 adults found that 62.7 percent felt Carter was doing as well or better than any other president could do on the economy. The surveys found similar results when the same question was asked about energy.

Another measure of the lowered expectations of many voters is an earlier poll conducted by The Washington Post in late October 1978. This one found that 48 percent of the 1,693 adults surveyed agreed with the statement. "Inflation and the cost of living are such difficult problems that there is not much any president can do about them."

Further confirmation of these findings comes from a surprising source -- Lance Tarrance, Connally's campaign pollster.

In June 1979, Tarrance said, the Connally campaign asked voters this question: "Thinking back to World War II and all the presidents since then, how do you think Jimmy Carter will be rated as a president a few years from now?" The results were that 54 percent of those polled said that Carter will be rated as good a president as any of his predecessors since Franklin Roosevelt.

Tarrance explained that his poll "shows why Pat Caddell [Carter's pollester] and the others are trying to portray Carter as something less than a knight in shining armor. Carter is trying to lower the expectations of the presidency to get reelected."

Neil Connors is 38 years old, a father of three, and a guidance counselor at Parkside Junior High School in Manchester, as well as one of the leaders of the local Catholic school system. He talked about his expectations for the next president -- or for Carter's second term -- as he munched a pastrami sandwich in the teachers' lounge at the public school.

"I don't expect a whole lot more than what we've got now, to be honest," he said. "Too many people go back to the era of Teddy Roosevelt when they have a conception that the U.S. ran the world. We have a misconception about leadership. If you think we're going to run the world, then we have a leadership crisis when we don't. But if you understand that we're just one of many nations, then we don't have a leadership crisis."

Connors, like many voters in Manchester, expressed a new awareness of the powers of Congress. "Growing up," he said, "I expected the president to be running the country. But as I matured, I realized that there are three branches of government. A president is a partner, a focal point, if you will. But you realized that Congress is as important as the President."

This appreciation of the complexity of modern American government helps explain why Connors, a registered Democrat, is likely to vote for Carter in the New Hampshire primary. "I personally don't think that Carter is doing that bad a job," he said, "except in the economy which has to be slowed down. But I don't know how much of that is his fault."

One of the goals of the Carter reelection campaign is to foster this new, more limited, conception of the powers of the presidency.

One political professional who believes that the voters have lowered their expectations of the presidency is William Hamilton, a Democratic pollster who is not working for any 1980 presidential candidate.

In the first half of 1979, he said, "the impressions that we got from our polling was that there was a real desire for strong leadership. Recently, I'm convinced that the attitudes have been changing on the leadership question."

Hamilton identified three factors that have contributed to this attitude shift: gas lines last summer, the publicity given to a potential heating oil shortage in New England this winter and the Iranian crisis.

These events have caused people to put in prespective where the country and the presidency are," he said. "There is a lowering of expectations about what a president can accomplish."

Despite his polling data, Hamilton was cautious about predicting that Carter would be renominated, let alone reelected.

"What makes this so interesting," Hamilton said, "why it's still unclear where the leadership issue is going to cut, is because we're still close to the period when people were saying, 'Give me strong leadership.'

"I'm not sure the American people can accept so fundamental an attitude change that quickly. Something could happen in the next year to trip these attitudes back to where they were.

Changing attitudes usually takes a while."

Steve Bodi is 22, a registered Democrat and the student body president of New Hampshire College in Manchester, the largest business school in New England north of Boston. Bodi, a bearded man in a velour sweater, talked about his feelings on the prsidential race after a meeting of the student government at which it decided, in the name of fiscal responsibility, not to send a student representative to an upcoming college entertainment conference in Washington.

Bodi was active in the draft-Kennedy movement, but he now supports California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. for president. He calls the whole leadership issue "a joke."

"When Carter ran in 1976," Bodi said, "the whole thing was how down to earth he was, how Carter was a person who was a farmer. This year, it's leadership, leadership. It's just a marketing game by Kennedy."

The Kennedy campaign must try to balance nostalgia for the memory of John and Robert Kennedy with the new political realities of the 1980s. Robert Squier, who produced the 30-minute television ad for Carter that was aired Jan. 6, said, "I'd love to be a small mouse listening to them debate how to characterize Kennedy. Is he number three in the line of his brothers or is he the first of something entirely new?"

One of the people Squier most wants to eavesdrop on within the Kennedy camp is Charles Guggenheim, the political film-maker. Guggenheim acknowledged that "things are much more complex now -- expectations have been somewhat diminished."

But Guggenheim was unyielding in his belief that the public still wants heroic leadership in the Kennedy mold. "There's a feeling out there," he said, "that one man -- one leader -- can change things. It's visceral. It's part of the human spirit that one man can make a difference."

One voter who sees the world the way Guggenheim does is Lionel LaBonville, 41, a $7,000-a-year cementer for Myrna Shoes, who is the third generation of his family to work in the once-booming shoe factories of Manchester. LaBonville is secretary-treasurer of his local union and a fervent Kennedy supporter.

LaBonville, who calls Carter a "jackass," said, "No matter what kind of problem we have, we have a right to expect from a president what is required of him, really. He should put out." LaBonville believes in strong presidential leadership and says, "Let's be honest, twisting arms is necessary."

The key issue for LaBonville, who believes there really isn't an oil shortage, is the price of fuel. "It's the biggest bite in my pocketbook, gas for my car and heating oil for my home. Whoever becomes president of the United States had better do something about it," he said.

Republicans pollsters and campaign consultants remain skeptical that voters have abandoned traditional notions of presidential leadership, although some acknowledge that there are changes within the electorate.

Listen to Robert Goodman, who is handling media for George Bush, a candidate he describes as "the American eagle:"

"We, the American people, are more frustrated than despairing. We still feel comfortable with our image of ourselves as strong. We still have the expectation that things will go our way and still fault our leaders when they don't."

Robert Teeter, a pollster who is also working for Bush, sounded a similar theme: "Jimmy Carter can't get across the idea that nobody could do better as president. That is a real defeatist political strategy. People don't expect Franklin Roosevelt or Jon Kennedy, but they do expect him to do a better job."

Jeannette Saigh, a white-haired woman in her 60s, fits the stereotype of an elementary school principal. She arches a vistor off to see a gingerbread house made by kindergarten students at Highland-Goffe's Falls Elementary School in Manchester. Saigh is a registered Republican who expresses admiration for Wendell Wilkie, saying, "I've read his book, 'One World,' several times."

Nonetheless, she holds a very modern view of the limitations of the presidency. "Do we expect a superman as president?" she asked rhetorically. "I think the American people do. No one can take on all the burdens. They are too great for one man, even with an able vice president and Cabinet. tI want my president to exert leadership, to point the way. But I don't expect him to be a know-all and a do-all."

Robert Teeter was one Republican who acknowledged that preceptions of presidental leadership have changed over time.

"Fifteen years ago," he said, "people felt that being young and dynamic equaled strong leadership. Today, I don't think that's the case anymore. Now, I think leadership involves such qualities as consistency, maturity, firmness and a steady hand on the controls."

Lance Tarrance, Connally's pollster, sees a different sort of change. "Ten years ago, people were upset about a lot of things, but they didn't think they could be solved. That's the difference between Vietnam and energy. Today, we've found, people expect the energy problem to be solved within five years."

Tarrance notes a basic similarity between Connally and Kennedy, despite their different parties and philosophies.

"Both men sense a political turning point," he said. "People are looking for someone to chart out the next few years after a decade of presidential passivity."

What may prove to be a fatal problem for both Kennedy and Connally is that many voters have come to accept presidential passivity as the norm and are skeptical of any presidential candidate who makes ringing claims about change in the White House.

Take, for example, Shelia Evjy, 37, an animated woman with dark hair and freckles, who is the assistant director of nursing at Elliott Hospital in Manchester. She is a registered Democrat, an admirer of Gen. Alexander Haig, the last White House chief of staff in the Nixon administration, and likely to vote for Carter in the New Hampshire primary.

"Given the circumstances," she said, I think he's doing as good a job as anyone can. In some ways, I feel that a bit more strongly since Iran, but not much."

Although Evjy describes herself as an "optimist," she has low expectations of all presidental candidates.

"I don't really expect any presidential candidate to fulfill during his term of office all he says he's going to do," she said. "the problems are bigger than all of us."