New York — His hopes of catching President Carter in the delegate race all but devastated in Illinois, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy now turns to New York for his "last best chance" to find a whiff of momentum in his frustrating pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.
New York is where the nation's media power is based. Here, if anywhere, Mr. Kennedy could hope a last-minute "media burst" would whip up voter enthusiasm to fulfill his promise: "New York will be a referendum on the Carter presidency."
However, the latest voter readings by both the Carter and Kennedy camps put the President ahead in New York, too, by 10 to 15 percentage points. (The Kennedy poll was taken before, the Carter after, the administration's foul-up of the UN Security Council vote on Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territory.)
The President has slipped from a 2-to-1 edge in late January, and much of that, in a state where Jews make up 35 to 40 percent of the Democratic vote, is attributed to the UN vote.
"The election is turning against Carter," says Herman Badillo, a New York Hispanic leader who supports the senator. "But the question is, Is it turning for Kennedy?"
But polls of voters in Illinois showed Mr. Kennedy leading among those who made up their minds in the last few days of the campaign, and he still lost badly there. Kennedy workers here fear that a last-minute turn to Kennedy in New York and neighboring Connecticut next Tuesday -- with 10 percent of the convention delegate total at stake -- may again prove too slight and too late.
Senator Kennedy had thought he could hold almost even with Mr. Carter in Illinois in the delegate race by taking advantage of the recent slip in voter approval of the President's handling of the economy and foreign policy. But the "trust" issue -- voter unease over Mr. Kennedy's past personal conduct -- and Mayor Jane Byrne's failure to deliver enough of the Chicago vote to his side, kept him from benefiting from any softening in Carter voter support.
Before Illinois, Mr. Kennedy trailed the President by 300 delegates by the Carter camp's count and by almost 250 according to the Kennedy count. The early Illinois returns gave Carter at least another 150 delegates of the 179 Illinois will send to the nominating convention.
This Saturday (March 22) Mr. Carter expects to win three-fourths of Virginia's 64 delegates in caucuses there. This would give him close to 700 of the 993 delegates apportioned before the New York and Connecticut primaries March 25.
The Carter camp is stopping short of saying Mr. Kennedy should drop out of the race. But it has begun to point vigorously to the tightening mathematical noose on the Kennedy candidacy.
The senator insists he will stay the course even if trailing badly in the delegate race. But his own strategists now concede that if he loses to the President in New York he will have to base his candidacy on reasons other than any hope of making a delegate comeback.
One of the chief reasons given for Senator Kennedy's hanging in is ideological: to keep the party from drifting too far to the right if Mr. Carter tries to offset the conservatism of likely Republican opponent Ronald Reagan.
The argument that Mr. Kennedy would like to keep his option open for another try in 1984 could be undercut if he pushed his challenge to the point of humiliating defeat, his supporters acknowledge. But, they say, he just might stay in because of "stubbornness" of character, a "tradition that Kennedys don't quit," and a determination to offset public questions about his staying power in adversity.
The Senator's dislike of the Carter style of leadership, and an ironic zest for campaigning apparent since his first major loss in Iowa, could fuel a Kennedy challenge right to the convention, sources close to the senator say.
The Carter people in New York appear pleased the senator has decided to make the Empire State his "big test." A Carter win in New York could squash the Kennedy candidacy, they feel.
"They've had a series of tests which they've failed," says Jerry Weiss, a Carter campaign coordinator in New York. "They said Iowa was the first test, but Kennedy lost, 2 to 1. Then he said he had to win Maine and New Hampshire, but he lost three of the four New England races. Then there was Illinois. And now New York. What's his next test? Kansas? Missouri? Wisconsin?
"If he can't win in New York, where his brother was a senator and his brother-in-law lives, where can he win?"
The Carter forces had long keyed on New York as a place to derail the Kennedy challenge, says state campaign director Joel McCleary, sent here last September from his White House job. "We wanted to drag him in here," says Mr. McCleary. "This is a state Carter can lose and still be a credible candidate. But Kennedy has to win here.
"A one-delegate victory for Carter would be a great victory," Mr. McCleary adds, outlining his "expectations" for Tuesday's outcome. "Kennedy has to do way better than that. He'd have to get at least 56 percent of the vote to start showing he can win."
Kennedy sources say they trail the President in Connecticut by "15 points" in their latest samplings. Mr. Carter has the support of popular Democratic Gov. Ella Grasso.
"Nothing, frankly, looks very good to us," says Richard Stearns, chief Kennedy delegate strategist, who is helping run the Connecticut campaign. "If we win at least in New York, then you can devise a mathematical scenario. We know some people don't like Kennedy. But if New York and Connecticut turn against the President, then you have to say something is wrong with Carter's candidacy."