PLAINS, Ga. — Former President Jimmy Carter, criticizing both the Reagan Administration and some Democrats, said Sunday that recent events have made the 1988 presidential race similar to the one he won in 1976 because voters will reward candor.
"I think the American people will be looking for someone who will tell the truth and be competent and compassionate," Carter said. "There is a lot of similarity between what has occurred this time and in 1976."
In that campaign, which followed the Watergate scandal, Carter vowed: "I will never lie to you," and went from relative obscurity to the White House.
Although he rarely criticizes President Reagan, the man who replaced him in the White House, Carter took the opportunity to do so Sunday, saying: "I think everyone in the 1988 presidential campaigns has to realize that the American people are fed up with constant misstatements of fact that have been coming from the White House for the past six years."
Carter made his comments after meeting with Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who is campaigning in the South in the Democratic race.
Carter said he did not think the Democrats suffered long-term damage from the embarrassing withdrawals of Gary Hart and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the controversy surrounding Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
But he said all candidates should be aware that from here on "the slightest deviation from the truth or from moral standards will be very damaging."
"It doesn't bother me," Carter said of the stress on character. "I think it is very good for the American people and the press to be very demanding: 'Are you telling the truth? Are you a person of integrity? Can we depend on the history of your past life?' "
Carter also defended the seemingly endless nature of campaigns:
"I have personally always been in favor of a long, difficult testing campaign because it requires candidates to learn a lot more about this country than they would otherwise learn, and it lets the American people learn a lot about the candidates."
Although he said he would "probably" not endorse anyone in the 1988 Democratic race, Carter said in response to a question that Simon "certainly has the characteristics" of honesty and integrity.
Simon hopes his plain talk and plain looks will be of particular benefit in the current political climate and he requested the meeting with Carter while traveling from campaign appearances in Atlanta to a scheduled Democratic debate in Miami tonight.