Washington — The prospect of an 11th-hour "unbinding" of delegates for the first ballot at the national Democratic and Republican conventions is prolonging the hopes of the trailing presidential contenders.
Although most delegates at both conventions are bound either by state laws or party rules to cast their first-ballot votes for the candidates they were elected to represent, there is the possibility in both parties of the rules being changed before the balloting begins for the 1980 presidential nominations.
Speculation centers on these projected situations: That President Carter might go into the Democratic convention with enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, but with such newly acquired liabilities as to be considered unelectable; and that the same kind of conditions could conceivably apply to Ronald Reagan at the Republican convention.
For Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the freeing of delegates on the first ballot at the Aug. 11- 14 convention could give him a fresh chance to recoup against a President Carter possibly in trouble on economic and foreign-policy issues.
On the Republican side, if a Ronald Reagan were to wrap up a delegate majority but then slip drastically in public standing, the speculation goes, many GOP delegates -- and trailing candidates -- would welcome the chance for last-minute maneuver.
"It's a fallback, wounded-candidate strategy for both parties," says political analyst Austin Ranney, commenting on proposals to free up delegates at the last moment.
The prospect of a convention reprieve partly explains Senator Kennedy's stated determination to go the distance, right to the New York City convention, even if Mr. Carter seems likely to hold a clear majority of delegates. The senator's stripped-down, low-budget campaign is designed to hold out until events turn in his favor.
For the Democratic convention, a rule established in 1978 forbids the Democratic National Committee to "force any delegate to vote contrary to his conscience and preference," says Mr. Ranney, a member of the Winograd commission which wrote the 1980 convention rules. But he says it is not clear whether this rule takes precedence over another 1978 rule binding all delegates -- whether chosen in primaries, caucuses, or appointed by party officials -- to their avowed candidates on the first ballot.
"Nothing states which rule takes precedence," Mr. Ranney adds. "If I, as a Maryland delegate [committed by party rules to the President], later decide Carter would make a disastrous candidate and i can't in good conscience vote for him, why can't I vote for Pat Moynihan under this rule?" he asks hypothetically.
In any event, the national party conventions themselves are the supreme rules-making bodies in US party politics, legal experts say. This was made clear in the Cousins v. Wigoda case in 1972, when the US Supreme Court upheld the Democratic convention's power to overthrow the [Mayor Richard J.] Daley delegation from Illinois, stating that national party rules hold precedence over state law.
Thus, both GOP and Democratic sources say their parties could open their conventions with a rules change or clarification vote to unbind delegates on the first ballot.
Under its 1976 rules, the Republican National committee (NRC) has already decided to enforce binding only on delegates bound "by state law" -- not those in states with primaries which follow only "party rules," or caucuses. Only 18 states, with 765 delegates or 38 percent of the total, clearly bind GOP delegates by state primary laws, and another three states with 5.5 percent of the total possibly do.
Now, RNC sources say, "dropping statelaw binding may be proposed at the convention itself." The issue would be raised when the rules committee meets on the convention's opening day, Monday, July 14, and voted on by the full convention the 15th.
The Kennedy camp is fully aware of the potential for a rules change at this summer's Democratic convention.
"The rules committee meets at the outset of the convention," says Carol Casey , a Kennedy expert on the delegate issue. "The convention sets its own agenda. A rules change could apply to the 1980 convention itself.
"It would be reminiscent of the unit rule question in 1968, which was overturned for the 1968 convention itself," Miss Casey says. Under the unit rule, candidates with the greatest number of delegates in a state could command the full delegation's tally. Texas, the largest state in 1968 with a unit rule, bitterly fought the change.
Kennedy people say their decision to push for a rules clarification or change on holding delegates to primary or caucuses commitments would have to be made after a pragmatic reading of their strength against President Carter at convention time.
"If we don't have the 1,666 delegates needed for the nomination, we don't have the 1,666 to change the rules," Miss Casey says.
But it would depend as much on the "tenacity" of Kennedy and Carter support as on sheer numbers, the Kennedy people say.
Patrick Lucey, former Wisconsin governor and now chief Kennedy campaign spokesman, says: "My own position is that he [Kennedy] should stay in until someone gets a majority of the delegates at the national convention, on the first or second ballot.
"Even if Carter appears likely to get a major share of the delegates, it must be remembered there are varying degrees of commitment. The polls might show Carter a loser in August. I don't think delegates want to back a loser."