Washington — The Democratic nomination race may be closer than accounts so far have called it. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy could actually have a better chance of overcoming President Carter's early delegate lead than most pundits give him.
Down more than 2 to 1 in delegates before the pivotal Illinois primary today, the Senator could reduce the delegate gap between him and the President just be closely splitting the Prairie State's delegates, and gaining ground the following week in New York and Connecticut. Together the three states send 515 delefates to the national convention, not far behind the 750 delegates apportioned before Illinois.
The Kennedy forces, eager for a major campaign victory outside his home state of Massachusetts, were encouraged by Sunday's Democratic primary in Puerto Rico.
as ballots are cast in Illinois today, the Senator has won primaries or caucuses in only two states -- Massachusetts and Alaska -- of the 17 states where the nomination has been contested.
the Kennedy camp claims a Puerto Rico victory remains within its grasp. In late returns, the senator trailed President Carter by 32,000 votes. More than 50,000 Republicans who had already voted in Puerto Rico's Feb. 17 Republican primary were improperly allowed to vote in the March 16 Democratic event, Kennedy people argue.
Kennedy spokesmen say they will contest the issue, at the party convention in August if not before.
On the eve of the Illinois primary, here is how the Kennedy and Carter camps apportion the delegate results so far, including Puerto Rico's preliminary 21 delegates for Carter and 20 for Kennedy:
Kennedyhs count: 467 Carter, 204 Kennedy, 61 uncommitted.
Carter's count: 486 Carter, 181 Kennedy, 64 uncommitted.
The opposing Democratic camps' counts vary at most by a delegate or two in every state but Minnesota, where the March 4 caucus results remain clouded. In Minnesota, Kennedy tallies 44 for Carter, 6 for Kennedy, and 25 undecided. Carter counts 55 for Carter, 5 for Kennedy, and 15 uncommitted.
Thus, Mr. Kennedy trailed the President by at least 260 delegates going into the Illinois contest. However, Kennedy people emphasize that between the Illinois primary (with 179 delegates at skate) and the March 25 New York (282 delegates) and Connecticut (54 delegates) primaries, another 15.5 percent of the convention delegate total will be decided. Mr. Kennedy expects to do well in all three states, probably winning New York. At that point, with 39.9 percent of the convention's 3,331 delegates apportioned, Mr. Kennedy's delefate deficit will be closer to 3 to 1 than its current 2 to 1, they say.
If the inflation issue continues to undercut the President's standing with voters, and if there is a reversal in public support for Mr. Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage issue, by June Mr. Kennedy conceivably could erase the delegate deficit, Kennedy strategists contend.
On June 3, Democrats hold primaries in eight states including California, New Jersey, and Ohio. On that final primary day, 696 delegates will be chosen, or 20.9 percent of the total.
Further, caucus delegate results may change as states carry the process through various levels from the local precinct to the state party convention. Conceivably then, Mr. Kennedy could begin to regain ground in the states where the caucusing has already begun, his supporters say.
But Carter campaign sources say they are working hard to prevent any such erosion.
A Puerto Rico delegate challenge might be more useful psychologically, or in "stirring things up" at the convention than in the accumulating delegate count itself, Kennedy people acknowledge. At most, if the ballots of Puerto Ricans who had previously voted in the Republican primary are discounted, the Kennedy tally would gain by one or two delegates at most.