I hate to say it, but I hope the hostages don't come home before the election. Here's one -- and only one -- of the reasons:

The scene, a shopping center coffee shop in Struthers, outside Youngstown.

It's Saturday morning, and the booths are filled. Struthers is a Democratic stronghold. The people who come here have made their living from the steel mills in the Mahoning Valley. Many are now out of work, some permanently, after the mills shut down. The coffee shop is the place where they keep in contact, exchange gossip, share ideas.

They all feel, as they will quickly tell you, that they are in the midst of a devastated area, abandoned, they believe, by their union, their companies, their government. They are bitter. Seated in one booth are two union members, both unemployed, and a local union official, one of the few still working, though at reduced wages. The conversation turns to politics and the presidential choices shortly facing them. All are Democrats, with a lifetime record of supporting Democratic presidential candidates. Not this year. This time one will vote for Ronald Reagan, another, if he votes at all, for John Anderson. The third, the official, is more guarded in stating his preference -- but clearly it isn't Carter. They all agree Carter is in dire political trouble in an area he carried handily four years ago. Then one says:

"The only thing that can save Carter, and everybody expects it, is something in the next few days like the hostages. But we will not be fooled by it. This valley will not be fooled by some rabbit out of a hat."

When it comes to cynicism, Americans are still innocents compared to European brethren who understand Machiavelli and expect to find his tracks in every political move. But they have come to be disbelievers, too. The American version tends to be less subtle and sophisticated -- or maybe just less worldweary -- but it contains dark conspiratorial hues nonetheless. Depending on the political point of view, it's easy enough to see that our irresolvable problems stem from a left-wing cabal of ruthless economic might (the Trilateral Commission) that has labored secretly to weaken America for the benefit of the communists or from a right-wing conspiracy of brutal force (the CIA and the FBI) that is responsible for everything from John Kennedy's murder to the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.

There is, of course, unhappily more than fancy to some of these fevered beliefs. Events of the last 15 years have removed many illusions about the performance of our leaders and institutions. What was unthinkable behavior not so long ago now often turns out to be, in that marvelous term of equivocation ad rationalization, if not immorality, "situation ethics."

Now it's not uncommon to find Americans suspecting the worst. That has been the case with the hostages in recent months. What's taking place now, as Election Day approaches, appears to be confirmation of the most cynical exploitation of the most emotional issue in years -- and by the most powerful person in the land, purely for political purposes.

Let me say at once that I do not believe this to be true. But I'm sure that many Americans are deeply troubled -- and deeply suspicious -- of the way the hostage news has been developing, almost as if on cue, as the presidential election date nears. The "October surprise" we have all been led to expect, for months now, seems less and less to be a matter of chance and more a matter of manipulation. Thus, at least, the views of many you meet while traveling the country in this last phase of the longest, and most wearying to the public, election period of our history.

The idea of Carter, the master puppeteer dangling his political marionettes, pulling the proper strings to extricate himself from defeat, appeals to those who have come to regard him as a duplicitous president. Certainly part of the reason for that attitude stems from Carter's own behavior. His summoning of the press early on the morning of the critical Wisconsin primary to report, via national television, good news about the hostages at hand, his refusal to debate Edward Kennedy on grounds that his preoccupation with the hostages precluded political activities, his staying in the Rose Garden during the long primary election process -- all have left a residue of problems that are affecting his political fortunes now. And I have no doubt that, if the hostages are released within days of the election or on election eve itself, it will work against him. But that is not why this issue is so troubling.

A novelist crafting a plot for the 1980 presidential year could hardly have created a more implausible tale. The president of the United States, at lowest ebb, seemingly approaching rejection by the same voters who put him in office just three years before, finds his popularity dramatically reversed by the mad acts of a medieval bunch of fanatics on the very day that ushers in the election year. As the anniversary of that event approaches, coming on the day U.S. citizens decide whom they wish to lead them for the next crucial four years, the same group of zealots intrudes again on the American political process -- and quite obviously for the most cynical of motives. They have been playing with the lives of our people for 12 long and bitter months. Now, by a form of blackmail, they are seeking to extort all they can in the most propitious moment -- and they are sowing new and more poisonous cynicism among Americans and diverting people at home from what should be the real reasons to choose between the respective presidential candidates.

In that sense, we have all been held hostage by the Iranians, and for all too long. Most frustrating of all, we seem robbed of any acceptable alternatives. No American would wish those hostages to endure one second longer in captivity. But here's one who wishes, regretfully, that their return could be put off until Election Day plus one.