December 01, 1975 12:00 PM

It was midnight as the white DC-3 lifted off the runway at Orlando, Fla. and headed north to Americus, Ga. Secret Service agents sat shivering in the unheated cabin while the stewardess huddled under a blanket. Only the presidential candidate, poring over editorials about himself, seemed oblivious to either cold or fatigue. Jimmy Carter was going home.

For Carter, Georgia’s former governor and once the Mr. Midnight of political dark horses, it was a week to justify his brimming self-confidence. Amid reports of growing organizational strength in Iowa, Oklahoma, Maine and Vermont, the prosperous 51-year-old peanut farmer won a surprisingly easy token victory in Florida over his southern archrival George Wallace. Pumping hands and cornering delegates at the state Democratic convention in Orlando, Carter drew a remarkable 67 percent of votes cast in a nonbinding presidential poll. Wallace, who skipped the convention, came in third with only 5.4 percent. Though Carter is not expected to do as well in the Florida presidential primary next March, observers were impressed. Carter took his victory coolly. “Wallace says I’m a tool of the Democrats who want me to damage his chances,” he observed. “But he knows I’m not a stalking horse, and that I’ll be there to challenge him wherever he runs. If I can do well in Florida, nobody can stop me.”

While some of his nine rivals for the Democratic nomination may be nonplussed by his early successes, Carter’s progress is clearly no fluke. A personable moderate-populist, he endorses some liberal objectives—tax reform, tough gun control (“after long prayerful consideration”) and a mandatory national health program—while voicing a businessman’s skepticism toward big government. His plan is to enter all 30 or so primaries, with the hope that early caucus wins in Iowa and Oklahoma and a primary win in New Hampshire will help propel him to the nomination (he predicts it will happen on the second or third ballot). As a result, he has been a study in perpetual motion. Since entering the campaign last December, Carter has visited 45 states and made 22 visits to Florida alone. Thus far, he concedes key weaknesses only in Massachusetts and New York.

A recent Saturday was typical Carter. After a United Auto Workers’ breakfast in Orlando, Carter sped across town to the Democratic convention (the Dade County caucus in the London Broil room), then doubled back to address another group of UAW delegates. Next he headed for Gainesville and a University of Florida football game. Plunging in among the tailgaters, he seized hands and introduced himself while a squad of student volunteers handed out sacks of Jimmy Carter-for-President peanuts. “Governor Carter, glad to see you,” cried a fan. “How y’all doin’,” drawled the candidate, his silvery blond hair catching the sunlight, his even white teeth flashing.

Staying only long enough for the kickoff, Carter flew off to a shopping center rally in Ocala, then returned to Orlando. After a candidates’ reception at the convention, and a grilling on the issues by a liberal splinter group, he found himself mobbed by delegates. “I just spoke to him!” gushed one young woman. “This is the first election I’ve been able to vote in, and I’m so glad I can vote for somebody like him! He’s got charisma!”

Threading his way through a delegates’ cocktail party, Carter moved on to the banquet hall, speaking to the waiters, then forging into the kitchen to shake hands with the help. A beaming waitress burst out of the kitchen in a flutter. “Last time I got his autograph!” she burbled. “This time I got a kiss! I won’t be worth a darn the rest of the night!”

Though critics charge Carter is merely a conventional liberal in Tory’s clothing, his roots in conservative rural Georgia run deep. A strict Southern Baptist, he still lives in the little hamlet of Plains (pop. 683); the Carters settled in Georgia 210 years ago. The first of the family to finish high school, young Jimmy was appointed to Annapolis in 1943. After obtaining his commission, he was chosen by Adm. Hyman Rickover for the nuclear submarine program, did graduate work in nuclear physics and was given pre-launch command of the Seawolf. When his father died in 1953, Carter resigned and returned to Georgia to take over what he developed into the family’s peanut and cotton gin business. Elected to the Georgia state senate in 1962, he ran for governor unsuccessfully four years later, and again, successfully, in 1970.

Prohibited by law from succeeding himself, Carter now lives with his wife, Rosalynn, and their 8-year-old daughter, Amy, in a comfortable ranch house outside Plains. Their three grown sons, Jack, 28, a lawyer, Chip, 25, now in the family business, and Jeff, 23, are all active in the Carter campaign. (He explains his young daughter to voters: “My wife and I had an argument that lasted 14 years.”)

One of the few Democratic candidates who can campaign full time, Carter takes pride in his drive and endurance. “I’m a hard worker,” he declares, “and I always have been. I’m a calm person. I’m physically healthy and I sleep well at night. I take a vitamin pill every day, but that’s all I need.” Although some skeptics believe Carter really may be grooming himself for the presidential race in 1980, or aiming at the Vice-Presidency, Carter does not abide such defeatism. “I did not enter this race to lose,” he vows, “and I do not intend to lose.” He has no difficulty whatsoever seeing himself in the Oval Office. “I hope I won’t change when I am elected President,” he says.

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