Washington — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential hopes may soon be all but dashed. These are the signs from New Hampshire on the eve of a Feb. 26 primary where President Carter, according to polls, is far out in front in the Democratic primary.
The Massachusetts challenger still clings to the possibility that his slashing attack on Mr. Carter for failing to cope with soaring inflation can somehow turn the primary around.
And his supporters hope that the apparent delay in the release of the hostages will damage Mr. Carter and fuel a last-minute Kennedy comeback.
Will the intense, door-to-door canvassing by the army of Kennedy workers help him pull victory out of the jaws of defeat?
All reports out of New Hampshire indicate "no" -- that it will take some kind of a political miracle for Senator Kennedy to upset the President (and surprise the forecasters) in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
If the senator pulls up to within 6 percentage points of the President, as he did in the Maine caucusing, will that be enough to keep some life in his campaign? Kennedy supporters are saying this will suffice.
But many political observers indicate that this is the moment when Mr. Kennedy must somehow come up with a real statistical victory -- that otherwise his support and campaign funds will dry up and he may soon will have to call it a day.
Some ask if Mr. Kennedy is being "set up" by the polls -- putting him in a position to "look good" by doing better than the predictions?
However, it would appear that the primary results in New Hampshire are much more likely to mirror the voter attitudes shown in the polls than in caucusing states like Maine, where a good turnout for a candidate can more nearly reflect a hard-working campaign effort than overall public preference.
Senator Kennedy's problems are further complicated by the fact that feelings toward him are perhaps warmer in New Hampshire than in any state other than his native Massachussets.
Thus, many say that if New Hampshire voters turn down the senator, it could be a devastating jolt to his whole candidacy.
The Kennedy camp also is finding that the senator's sharp attacks on Mr. Carter in recent weeks -- on both his foreign and domestic policies -- seem not to have been too productive.
Senator Kennedy's Georgetown University speech in Januray, well written and delivered, did serve to rally the liberal wing of the democrats behind him.
But Mr. Kennedy is discovering that his antidraft-registration issue is not one that has spawned a youth-for-Kennedy drive anything close to the anti-Vietnam war movement that gave such vatality to the bids of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
On the contrary, the senator's opposition to draft registration -- particularly in the form of youngsters going door to door espousing this cause -- appears to have irritated many New Hampshire voters.
Some are telling reporters that while they are less than happy with Mr. Carter's performance, they do not like to hear Senator Kennedy continually cutting him up.
Further, many New Hampshire Democrats seem to understand that Mr. Carter is dealing with very difficult problems -- Iran and Afghanistan overseas, inflation and energy at home -- and they apparently don't believe that Mr. Kennedy could deal more effectively with them.