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Eight years after Jimmy Carter left the White House in defeat and despair, his long political exile is coming to an end here in his native Georgia.

No longer is he shunned by the Democratic establishment or scorned as the hapless leader who turned over the keys of the White House to Republican Ronald Reagan.With the Democratic convention threatened by discord, Jesse Jackson turned to Carter to mediate his high-profile differences with Michael Dukakis. "He has earned the respect of all of us," Jackson explained.

Jackson said he wants Carter to play "a real role" in settling the differences. "He understands the equation," Jackson said.

Carter will deliver an opening-night speech before the Democratic convention on Monday. He is hosting receptions for the media, former Cabinet members and other dignitaries.

And, the Carter Presidential Center will be the site for many convention-related activities, such as forums on domestic and foreign policy issues.

At long last, Carter is an undisputed elder statesman of the party.

Democratic chairman Paul Kirk said Americans have changed their opinion about Carter after "eight years of three-by-five cards and hands-off government" under Reagan.

"People understand the sincerity and the seriousness of purpose and the enlightment of values and views that President Carter brought to his administration," Kirk said.

"And I think he will be greeted and welcomed at the Democratic convention as he should be - just as a president whose roots were planted and nutured here in Georgia but who made a great contribution to values around the globe," Kirk said.

Those must be sweet words to Carter, particularly since they come from a man who wanted to see Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., not Carter, as the Democratic nominee for preident in 1980.

It hasn't been easy for Carter since Reagan turned him out of office in 1980, humiliating him with a 44-state sweep. Even after losing the White House, Carter remained a favorite target of Reagan and Republicans, blamed for the sagging economy and ridiculed by George Bush for talking about America's "malaise."

For a long while, Carter was remembered as the president who left American hostages in Iran, the leader who authorized a rescue attempt that ended in failure in the desert. He presided over a nation that waited in long lines for gasoline and had to pay double-digit interest rates for loans.

But Reagan has had his setbacks, too: 242 servicemen killed in Lebanon, Americans held hostage in Lebanon, record budget deficits, the Iran-Contra scandal and, most recently, the picture of an American warship shooting down a civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people.

Perhaps these events have softened the Republican-promoted image of Carter as inept.

A relationship with Carter has proven not to be a political liability, as evidenced by the election successes of former administration members such as Carter's secretary of transportation, Brock Adams, who won a Senate seat from Washington state, and Andrew Young, former U.N. ambassador who now is mayor of Atlanta.

Though Carter's name is not frequently invoked by Michael Dukakis, all of the Democrats who ran for president - Dukakis included - made a pilgrimage to Georgia to pay respects this year.