Both candidates, the Democratic chief executive and his conservative Republican challenger, had turned edgy waiting for the release of the Highly Respected Pollster's late October poll. When finally released, the survey confirmed what the politicians had been telling each other: the race was close -- 46 percent for the Republican and 41 percent for the Democrat, still within the margin of error.

A lot more than the closeness of the numbers kept the sharpies from betting the ranch against the underdog incumbent. In spite of some bad reviews for bumbling in office, the Democrat was an authentic political giant-killer. A few bankrolls had been diminished, and some reputations tarnished, by underestimating this Democrat in his earlier wins.

So if the Republican's victory the next week was a surprise for most, his landslide margin was a shock to all. On Election Day, the Democrat won only 42 percent of the popular vote and the Republican won the other 58 percent. The pollster in this story was Mervin Fields of California. The loser, the winner and the year? Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and 1966, repectively.

Maybe that was the tipoff about Reagan -- that he was or might be a Voting Booth Candidate. The dream of all political managers, but very rare in real life, a voting booth candidate will consistently run stronger and better with actual voters on Election Day than he (or she) will in any pre-election poll. Frequently, the voting booth candidate, along with this talent, carries with him the faint scent of social or philosophical disrespectability. Voters may be reluctant to tell Dr. Gallup they intend to vote for "that" fellow. But once safely behind the curtain, they are eager to pull the lever.

If Reagan still holds that special magic of the voting booth candidate, then Tuesday could be an early one.

Whatever people have been telling George Gallup lately, he has had nothing but bad news for the Democrats. Sure, in his semi-final poll Gallup finally had Carter taking the lead, by three points, over Reagan. And there should have been cheering at Carter headquarters, right? Wrong.

Remember the last three months and Carter's remarkable comeback since the depths of the July numbers? During the comeback, the attention of press and public was primarily on challenger Reagan. The question, asked with more than a little prompting from the Carter campaign, concerned Reagan's record, judgment, stability, associates and intelligence. That's absolutely fair game -- and smart politics if your guy is the incumbent with a 13 percent inflation rate and the "highest interest rates since the Civil War."

But now, because the president is ahead, the focus in the closing days turns from the challenger to the incumbent and the question of whether four more years of the similar is what the voters want.

But far more alarming for all Democrats must be the other recent report from Dr. Gallup, which warned that 1980 voter turnout could very well be the lowest since 1948.

If that happens, it can mean only trouble for the majority party. Voter participation is a product of three factors -- age, education and income. The more years one has spent, both on the planet and in school, and the more money one has, the more likely one is to vote (and, maybe not coincidentally, to vote Republican). Bad weather and reduced turnouts do not generally terrify Republican bosses. If the expected dropoff does take place, it will almost surely take place among these citizens who pack a lunch, punch a clock and pull the Democratic lever.

The president must share some responsibility for the lowered interest. All year long he has been uncomfortable in the incumbent's role. Like most candidates, he is far more attractive and effective on the offensive. Now, for the first time in his truly remarkable public career, Carter is not the perceived instrument of change for people who are upset with the way things are being run and with who's running them.

Last April, just before the Pennsylvania primary, Patrick Caddell, the president's trusted adviser and pollster, leaked to the press a poll that showed the president trailing Sen. Kennedy in Pennsylvania. Caddell subsequently explained the leak as a tactic designed to shift the voters' attention from the competence of the incumbent to the character of the then front-running challenger. There was even a commercial to help: "A man brings two things to a presidential campaign. He brings his record and he brings himself. What he is is often as important as what he's accomplished." Carter, of course, won the nomination. But he lost the Pennsylvania primary.

Forget Gallup, Harris and all the others; ignore their printouts. My friend Fallon has a do-it-yourself poll: just ask yourself 1) how many people do you know who voted for Jerry Ford in 1976 and are voting for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and 2) how many people you know who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and are not voting for him in 1980? If the second group is a lot bigger, then Fallon says Tuesday will be the day the Gipper wins the big one.