Jimmy Carter, a southern country boy who made good in the rough-and-tumble world of national politics, returned to his native region today and asked the people of the South to stick with him on what he hopes will be a return to the White House.
Beginning his general election campaign on a sweltering Labor Day in a dusty park on the banks of Tuscumbia Springs, the president appealed to southerners as one of their own on seeking to tap the sense of regional pride that served him so well in 1976.
Carter also used the Labor Day event to break his official silence on the Polish labor strikes to say that the United States was "inspired and gratified" by the success of the Polish workers.
Carter did not mention his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, as he spoke to more than 25,000 people at an annual Labor Day picnic in this northwest Alabama town near the Mississippi, and Tennessee borders.
But he invoked the theme he struck in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, asserting that the 1980 election represents a choice between "two futures" for the country and that his reelection represents the best chance for continued peace.
The president recalled the carnage of the Civil War and his visit two years ago to the Gettysburg battlefield with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the Camp David peace talks.
"I remembered that in all our nation's wars young men from the South have led the rolls of volunteers and also led the rolls of casualties," he said. "We southerners believe in the nobility of courage on the battlefield. And because we understand the costs of war, we also believe in the nobility of peace."
That is why, Carter said, his administation has worked for the strategic arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, which Reagan opposes.
It was not nostalgia but cold, hard political calculation that brought the president South today to open his general election campaign. In 1976, the region formed a natural base for his candidacy and on election day he carried every state of the Old Confederacy except Virginia. But this year, Reagan poses a serious threat to Carter in the South, with Alabama one of several states on the endangered list.
The area around Tuscumbia is largely white, fundamentalist Christian, traditionally Democratic and conservative. Recently the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan made Tuscumbia its national headquarters and this morning, before Carter's arrival, a handful of Klan members marched through the town streets.
The president seized on the march to remind southerners of some of the bitterness of the past and to deliver a message to the rest of the country. In an eloquent passage that was not included in his prepared text, Carter said:
"As the first man from the Deep South in 140 years to be president of this nation, I say these people in white sheets do not understand our region and what it's been through. They do not understand what our country stands for. They do not understand that the South and all of America must move forward. Our past is a rich source of inspiration. We've had lessons that we've learned with a great deal of pain. But the past is not a place to live. We must go forward in the South and we will."
The president flew here on a small Air Force jet rather than Air Force One to conserve campaign funds. Overlooking no detail in his effort to identify with his native region, he was accompanied by country and western star Charlie Daniels.
Arrayed behind Carter on the speaker's platform in Spring Park were some familiar faces from an older South -- former Alabama governors George Wallace and "Big Jim" Folsom and former senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi, John Sparkman of Alabama and Albert Gore of Tennessee.
But Carter's potential problems in the South were symbolized by the state's current governor, Forrest (Fob) James, a converted Republican who has refused to endorse him and who confined his remarks today to a brief welcome to Alabama.A message more to the president's liking was delivered by Gov. William Winter of Mississippi, who urged the crowd not to turn its back "on one of our own."
The president began his 1976 campaign on the front porch of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Ga., a site chosen to signal that he was both a southerner and a Democrat. But today, as Carter began his reelection campaign, the emphasis was on his southern heritage.
Shedding his dark blue suit coat in the blistering midday sun, the president said, "You people here have the same background, the same families, the same upbringing that I have . . . I've come back to the part of this nation that will always be my home, to ask you to join me once again in a great and noble campaign that, with your help, will lead to victory in November."
Carter chose to speak of only two issues as he began his campaign against Reagan -- foreign policy, in which he pledged to maintain military strength while pursuing arms agreements and continuing his human rights policy, and energy.
He made no reference to Reagan, but defended the administration's energy record and said, "We have finally laid a good energy foundation and now we can revitalize the entire economy of our nation."
"The Democratic Party has always been the party of progress," Carter said. "And Democratic leadership -- along with American ingenuity and American dedication -- offers the brightest economic future for all of the people of the United States."
The president returned to Washington later today to host a picnic for labor union leaders at the White House. He told the leaders that his recently announced economic program will produce one million new jobs in the next two years and pledged a continuation of his urban policy and efforts to enact legislation strengthening labor unions.
Carter also did the sort of thing that Reagan cannot -- announcing the issuance of a new stamp honoring the late AFL-CIO President George Meany.