Let's, at the very least, be fair to the man. He was not, when most of us first met him some four years ago, earnestly clutching his very own 29-point legislative package. Jimmy Carter did not come to us promoting comprehensive programs. Instead, he was pushing character -- his own. Competence, too, of course. But give Carter credit for understanding that in 1976 American voters felt themselves longer deprived of character than of competence in their elected leaders.

Before most of us had even learned the names of his children, he told us repeatedly that he loved ours, and us. For some, unrequited love can be personally unbearable. For others, unsolicited love can be publicly unsettling.

His was a political style and strategy that sounded themes rather than raised issues. Leaner and cheaper government would actually mean better government. Not knowing the floor plan of the Rayburn House Office Building, or the members who worked there, would be an advantage in a chief executive. He would arrive in town, unencumbered by old alliances and vestigial biases. We were all competent and loving and good, and there was no earthly reason why our government, too, could not be all of the above.

But what made this ex-governor of Georgia someone to reckon with in presidential politics -- besides his fierce determination and applied intelligence -- was his manifest appeal to black Democratic voters. For many non-southern Democrats, his black support legitimized Carter. Andrew Young froze the liberal linebackers for Jimmy Carter, particularly those of the Gucci-Pucci persuasion who frequently defer to blacks in candidate selection.

Issues, in this approach to campaigning, are quite secondary to the Theme. Issues are really more of a nuisance than anything else. A certain contempt for issues and for those who deal in them often develops. A promise not to fib is a good theme, but not much of an issue.

Vietnam was an issue, and a troublesome one. In the Omaha Hilton on June 19, 1971, Gov. Jimmy Carter moved to put his Democratic colleagues on record urging that year's Democratic presidential candidates not to discuss the Vietnam War in their campaigns. Carter was persuaded to withdraw the Omaha resolution and, five years later, he could tell a black congregation in Indianapolis that Vietnam was a "racist" war. Mercifully, Carter was not asked exactly which of the 53,000 Gold Star mothers had lost their sons in a war that should not have been debated and which had lost theirs in a "racist" war. Issues meant trouble more often than not. So after the 1976 Democratic convention, when questions were raised about the nominee's commitment to the national party record, Carter became as solidly liberal in his positions and his prose as most Midwestern Democratic senators, and more so than some. Issues are almost always imposed from outside, by others. Themes come from within. They belong to the candidate himself.

This year, the issues have been essentially imposed by real events, and by Ronald Reagan. Reagan has been talking, for what seems like most of our lives, about the need for a stronger and more expensive national defense, a big cut in taxes and government, and a more muscular national policy toward the Soviets. In the fall of 1980, Jimmy Carter is emphasizing those very same issues, only he is doing it (he lets us know) in a much more "responsible" manner. For the Strategy to work, the candidate must be flexible.

The basic flaw in the Strategy is that it was designed for use by an insurgent against an incumbent. Under the Strategy, the insurgent makes the incumbent the issue of the campaign. The problem is that the insurgent, once successful, must face the voters as an incumbent or retire. So what is such an incumbent to do but to try to trip his current opponent up on a few of the issues the latter might have been foolish enough to raise? Or to protray him as a mass of character defects?

The biggest obstacle to the success of the 1980 strategy, other than the economic record of the past 45 months, was the magnificent job done in implementing the 1976 strategy. To hear the apostle of love and compassion talking about "hatred" and "war" and "racism," with the practiced nod and the knowing wink, is for some of us too much like finding Carrie Nation under the influence of cheap whiskey. It leaves us more uncomfortable than amused.