Washington — Despite trailing President Carter in the polls and frustration at getting into the news, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy basically is standing pat with his game plan, positions on issues, and campaign style, spokesman Thomas Southwick says.
But this steady-as-he-goes stance belies a frustrating search for options to restore verve to the Kennedy campaign.
So far, the campaign's adjustments have been minor. The Senator has begun to use the telephone more -- like President Carter, Mrs. Carter, and Vice-President Walter Mondale, taking a stint at the phone each day to call union shop stewards in Iowa and other party activists useful in the campaign maneuvering. And when he returns to the trail next Monday -- after a week off prepping on issues for a Jan. 7 debate in Des Moines that will not be held -- he will try not to cram his schedule too tight, to avoid getting overtired and making mistakes.
But with only two weeks to go from then before the Jan. 21 Iowa caucus opener , he may have to do something more dramatic, some political observers say. They see him as unable so far to get attention for his domestic pitches on energy, the economy, and women's issues. And they see him boxed in on foreign affairs, where the events in Iran and Afghanistan have left the nation's eyes focused on the President.
Sources close to the Kennedy campaign report a deep agonizing over how to command attention. The Kennedy standpat stance reflects an inability to make a bold strategic breakthrough, they say.
"They'd like to go to the left on domestic policy," one source says. "In the talking stage are ideas like calling for a six-month wage-price freeze, on the domestic scene. But there is no way for Kennedy to go to the right on foreign policy or national defense, without losing liberal support. He just can't compete with Carter on foreign affairs now. His people are floundering around for ideas."
The best the Kennedy camp can come up with now is "to run for city council in Iowa," a Kennedy campaign intimate says. "There are even thoughts of dropping the large plane and the hundred newsmen that tag along to meet more one-on-one with people."
Mr. Kennedy apparently has decided to make Iowa into an attention-getter for himself. If he does well there in the first round of caucuses at the precinct level Jan. 21, it may help restore the credibility to his campaign that has steadily waned since he announced Nov. 6 in Boston.
Overall, Messrs. Kennedy and Carter are rated about even in Iowa, both in poll standings and in organization. But Mr. Kennedy's strength is apparently greater in the urban areas, and Mr. Carter's in rural precincts. The Senator is "weaker in the rural areas, where the Chappaquiddick issue runs stronger," sources close to the campaign say.
Officially, campaign spokesman Southwick observes the Chappaquiddick affair has had little surface impact on the Kennedy campaign. "He's had only three or four questions on Chappaquiddick, and all from reporters," Mr. Southwick says. "Everybody's dug into it again -- the Washington Post, New York Times, Washington Star -- and they've found nothing new. People might like it [the Chappaquiddick episode as reported] or not like it, but that's it."
Fund raising has been one of the Kennedy campaign pluses, according to Mr. Southwick. "We've raised something over $3 million in six or seven weeks," he says, "over $2 million of it in one week. That's a good healthy sum, enough to get through the early primaries in good shape."
If Senator Kennedy does poorly in Iowa, his fund raising -- which despite overall totals has already proved weak among direct mail, liberal givers -- could become another Kennedy problem for the crucial "middle primary" phase, from the Illinois primary in mid-March to the end of April.
Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center, says he thinks Mr. Kennedy's standpat strategy is probably the best for him at the moment. "What else can Kennedy do?" Mr. Scammon asks. Localized, person-to-person campaigning is suited to a low turnout situation like the Iowa caucuses, in which only 5 percent of the voters take part.
"Kennedy doesn't have the will or the capacity to come out with a foreign policy stronger than Carter's," Mr. Scammon says.