Boston — The Bay State primaries here tomorrow pose a crucial test for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and George Bush, the already tattered alternatives to their parties' front-runners.
The candidates out front, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, see liberal Massachusetts as their own worst state, even apart from Kennedy and Bush native region strength here. In 1976, Mr. Carter was a distant fourth with just 14 percent in the Democratic primary. Mr. Reagan came in a weak second with 35 percent to President Ford's 62 percent on the GOP side. So the front-runners do not have to win here in 1980, to stay credible going into the heart of their strength, the Southern primaries next week.
Mr. Reagan, however, must finish close to Mr. Bush in the Massachusetts voting Tuesday, to follow up the blow he dealt Mr. Bush in New Hampshire, his people say.
Talk of former President Ford's possible entry into the 1980 race, based on the charge that a Reagan-led ticket "can't win in November," is putting pressure on the Reagan camp to show strength among the moderates and independents who vote heavily in the Massachusetts GOP primary.
Reagan's "win-ability" was proved in his 50 percent to 23 percent New Hampshire edge over Mr. Bush, counters Gerald Carmen, New England strategist for former California Governor Reagan. Many 1976 Ford voters in New Hampshire switched to Mr. Reagan this time, he says. But most political observers expect Reagan opponents -- with Mr. Ford's cooperation -- to continue charging that the conservative Californian's base is too narrowly confined to the minority party's right, nationwide, to beat the Democrats in November.
Senator Kennedy must show a decisive edge over President Carter in the Massachusetts primary, his own backers here say. Anything less than 60 percent of the vote -- however Mr. Carter splits the rest with California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. -- would be a loss. And if Mr. KEnnedy sank into the low 50s, the impact on his national ambitions would be "disastrous," supporters say.
The 1980 Democratic contest here in Massachusetts has been a ho-hum affair, Kennedy campaign officials concede. Even with most of the 26 Kennedy clan members at work, the campaign has lacked the fire of earlier Kennedy campaigns in the senator's home state. Kennedy insiders say they will watch returns in student enclaves like Cambridge and the Back Bay in Boston, to see whether his strength is eroded there by Jerry Brown, as a key test of the senator's staying power among liberals.
The Kennedy campaign has been raising money at the rate of a quarter million dollars a week, says money raiser Morris Dees. "We have 30 fund-raisers scheduled over the next four weeks," Mr. Dees adds. "We have an inventory of art to sell that is worth three quarter of a million dollars, enough to cover the campaign's $600,000 deficit. We're not cash flush. we can't run a full-scale media campaign. But we can keep the candidate moving and pay the phone bills."
Still, Mr. Kennedy's resources are so slim he must skip next week's Southern primaries to focus on the Illinois and New York primaries the last two weeks of March. A poor Massachusetts showing would further hurt him in Illinois and New York, where he already trails President Carter. The illinois and New York primaries, March 18 and 25, will decide 14 percent of the Democratic convention's delegate total. With the New York primary, 40 percent of the Democratic delegates will have been chosen.
Mr. Bush is on the spot, too, in Massachusetts. New England is also the home region for Connecticut yankee Bush. He early built the most formidable organization of either party in Massachusetts. He has enlisted most of the state's GOP elite.
Ann Kramer, Bush campaign director for Massachusetts, says: "There was a momentary dip for Bush the morning after New Hampshire. But by that afternoon our phone banks showed we were going up. We've regained what we lost. The undecideds, which are running about 20 percent, are breaking toward us."
"Massachusetts is very different from New Hampshire," Mrs. Kramer says. "It's the first urban industrial state. It has the first huge independent vote, which doesn't want to be aligned with conservative leadership in the state. Reagan has moved to the right. The firing of [Reagan campaign director] John Sears shows that. It shows Reagan moving to the fringe right," she adds.
"George Bush is the only viable alternative to Reagan," Mrs. Kramer says. "Howard Baker, with only 12 or 13 percent of the vote nationally, hasn't the depth of strength. anderson's skipping the South shows he hasn't any strength there. He, too, represents a fringe of Republican voters in the country.we [ Bush] have most of Ford's voters from last time."
Reagan campaign director for Massachusetts, Robert Dawson, says the Reagan campaign shake-up happened too close to the Massachusetts primary to make much difference. "I won't predict victory," Mr. Dawson says of Mr. Reagan's chances, conceding the lead to Mr. Bush. "But at least now I can say we have a chance to win it."
In sheer optimism, Illinois Rep. John B. Anderson would seem to lead the Massachusetts field. Spokesman Dan Graul expects Mr. Anderson to finish close to George Bush here. The result in Concord, N.H., in that state's primary, generally foreshadow what happens the next week in Massachusetts, he says. Concord's voting last week gave Mr. Reagan 36 percent, Mr. Bush 22, Mr. Anderson 20, and Mr. Baker 16.