"Maybe you can explain something to me," the cabbie said. "How is it your man can go on television, let the whole world see that he doesn't know what he's talking about, and still not lose any ground in the polls?"

"He's not my man," I said. "He's the president of all Americans, and I don't see how you can sit there and say he doesn't know what he's talking about. True, he may be a bit hazy on some details, but Americans trust him when it comes to the big picture."

"Actually, it's the big picture that has me puzzled," the cabbie said. "Take arms control, for instance. Anybody could get a little confused as to whether Russia likes land-based missiles better than submarine missiles, though I would think that the commander in chief ought to be able to keep that straight. But any fool can see that if you want to stop the missile race, the best way to do it is just stop.

"But your president wants to build a few more catch-up missiles first, and then stop -- like he expects the Russians to just sit there and do nothing while we are catching up."

"You want him to stop while we're behind?" I asked.

"Well, first, I don't think we're behind. More to the point, the Russians don't think we are either. And behind or not, they won't just twiddle their thumbs while we go deploying more missiles."

I explained that the president was trying to create a situation of strength that would induce the Soviet Union to engage in serious arms-reduction negotiations. But the cabbie still didn't understand.

"Reagan sounds like a guy who wants to put on six suits and 14 pairs of underwear before he starts playing strip poker," he said. "If the other guy sees him doing that, he's going to put on a lot more clothes, too. So they play for a few hours, and both men are down to what they had on at first. What's the point?"

I saw that I didn't have time to explain the president's views on arms control. "Is there anything else that's bothering you?" I asked.

"Everything," the cabbie said. "Take the budget. First your man pretends that deficits don't matter, then he blames them on the Democrats, although his deficits are bigger than anything the Democrats ever had. And then he turns around and says he wants a balanced-budget amendment. Puts me in mind of a drunk praying for Prohibition.

"And that's not all. He can't keep his facts straight on Central America, and he still can't explain why we had the Marines in Lebanon. By my lights, he lost both the debates, and still the polls say he's way out in front. How do you explain it?"

"The voters know that he is for a strong America," I said.

"And when did Mondale say he's for weakness?"

"He's optimistic about America's future," I said.

"Even when everybody's telling him that the deficits are a ticking time bomb?"

"He's a nice man," I said.

"He's a racist," the cabbie said, "or at least he doesn't care if his policies hurt black folks, or poor folks, or anybody else except his rich buddies. Now this Mondale is a decent, honest, fair-minded man who understands the issues and cares about people, yet all the pollsters say he can't possibly win. Would you like to explain that for me?"

I started to tell him about a letter the president had written to go into a time capsule, and how he had been driving along the highway, flanked by the majestic mountains and the sun-swept Pacific, and about America's sons and daughters and their rendezvous with destiny. And I'm sure I would have won him over if we hadn't arrived at my office before I could finish.