Washington — President Carter's military commitment in the Persian Gulf apparently has strengthened his "presidential" image and, hence, his current campaign. "His speech was tailored to his political need," says Joe Crangle, Senator Kennedy's presidential campaign director. "He's perceived as a weak leader. He needs to be perceived as strong. He must continue to say, 'I'm tough, I'm tough , I'm tough.'"
By and large, Democratic leaders, other than Senator Kennedy, were hailing the Carter State of the Union thesis.
Even Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota, who questions draft registration, says the President was right in telling the Soviets where the United States is drawing the line.
Several Republican leaders were echoing a reaction from House minority leader John Rhodes: "He was rattling the scabbard without anything in it." But others were giving guarded approval to the Carter stance in the Gulf.
Senator Kennedy's response will soon be seen as new campaign strategy, Mr. Crangle told reporters over breakfast here Jan 24 -- one where the senator will be asking, "How did we get into this mess?"
Says Mr. Crangle: "The senator will be supportive. But he will be asking: Do you reward a man who brought us to the brink of war?"
Senator Kennedy's post-Iowa discussions have resulted in a new toughness on foreign policy. "If we don't have changes in approach," Mr. Crangle says, "we will have more Iowas."
He adds: "The only way he can win the election is to keep us in crisis, crisis, crisis. How did we get into all this? That will be the underlying theme that Kennedy will be developing."
The President's vow to use military force to protect US "vital interests" in the Gulf has raised some questions, from both Democratic and GOP leaders:
* Is this a threat that the US would use nuclear weapons if the Soviets step over the line? And, if the nuclear threat is not there, what credibility would the threat have in a theater so far away from the American home base?
* Will this more hawkish Carter approach continue to unify Americans behind him? Or is it nearing the place where those who fear war -- and particularly nuclear war and a global disaster -- may begin to raise questions, even to protest?
* In political terms, has the President now staked out such a clear challenge to the Soviets that he has assured a "great debate" on his policy -- in Congress and among the American people?
The answer to the last question is that the debate about the origins of the crisis and why the Presidnt was so late in discovering the Soviet intentions has already begun -- in both forums.
But up to recently the holding of the hostages by Iran -- and the possibility that an attack on the President's policy and actions in that area of the world might dilute his effectiveness in efforts to free the hostages -- has muffled his critics.
It now appears the President's political opponents have decided to take off their gloves and question why the United States is beset by crises in Iran Afghanistan.
Most Republican presidential candidates have recently gone on the attack on this issue. They are saying that the crises could have been averted if the President had been alert to what the Soviets were up to.