Washington — President Carter is moving steadily toward winning the Democratic presidential nomination despite his inability to deliver a knockout blow to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Maine.
Mr. Carter now has come out ahead in three straight tests against Senator Kennedy -- in Florida, Iowa, and Maine. All these were contests that the Massachusetts senator earlier had indicated he should and would win.
Now a Monitor survey of upcoming primaries indicates that while the President probably picked up little momentum from his victory in the Maine caucuses Feb. 10, he still is the favorite in primaries in New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Puerto Rico, and Illinois.
Only in the senator's home state, Massachusetts, is Mr. Kennedy well out in front. Monitor staff writer George Merry in Boston makes this assessment: "Kennedy is out front 2 to 1 now -- but Carter will probably narrow this." He sees the President defeating Mr. Kennedy in New Hampshire in a "close" contest.
Recent pools have given Mr. Carter about a 2-to-1 advantage. The senator's relatively close second-place finish in Maine, winning about 40 percent of state delegates to 46 percent for the President, was a superb organizational effort and has buoyed his campaign workers. It was what Mr. Kennedy needed to keep campaign contributions coming in and should enable him to wage at least one more all-out battle.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, George Bush continues to build on his Iowa victory.
If polls are correct, the former Ambassador to the United Nations is enjoying a wide margin over Ronald Reagan in New England -- and particularly in New Hampshire -- as well as holding a 6-point lead over the former California governor in Illinois.
Whether Mr. Bush can keep his momentum going in the South against Mr. Reagan and former Texas governor John Connally remains a question.
California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s candidacy for the Democratic nomination gained new credibility in the Maine caucuses. He received about 13 percent of the state delegate vote.
Governor Brown also may have discovered an important issue in Maine: Much of his strength came from young people who rallied behind his anti-draft registration position.
Presidential adviser Robert Strauss, assessing this anti-draft vote in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington Feb. 11, said he thought the issue is "significant," but "it is not a movement.
"At least," he said, "I hope it isn't."
Several questions now emerge from Senator Kennedy's "stay alive" finish in Maine:
* Will Mr. Carter decided to debate the senator? Both Robert Strauss and Tim Kraft (another Carter campaign leader) told reporters at this breakfast meeting that the decision to debate was one the President would have to make himself. Mr. Strauss indicated doubts that the President would debate.
* Will Mr. Carter campaign in New Hampshire? Said Mr. Strauss: "Carter said he would not engage in partisan campaigning while the hostages are being held. It's my judgment that he won't go out and campaign until the hostages are released. I could be wrong. But that's the commitment the President has made."
* Will Mr. Carter answer critics (including Kennedy and Brown) who say he has "exaggerated" the Afghanistan crisis? Mr. Strauss's reply: "The President will talk about that at his press conference this week."
The main ingredients in the strong Kennedy comeback after his dispiriting Iowa defeat:
1. The Kennedy campaign team made 20,000 phone calls to Maine voters and 1, 000 Kennedy workers went door-to-door.
2. The senator was in "Kennedy country," despite his attempted disclaimers. Voters were more inclined to vote for a "home boy" from New England than for a Southerner.
3. There are always voters who like to back the "underdog," particularly if they are not all that much in favor of the "upperdog." Thus, many who caucused in Maine were backing "underdog" Kennedy as against a president who really hasn't excited them that much.