Washington — From Maryland's Chesapeake Bay to the choppy waters off San Francisco, presidential underdogs George Bush and Edward M. Kennedy hope to stretch out a fragile line of victories in the final month of the delegate campaign.
While the weight of prevailing political judgment leans against their success , Bush and Kennedy backers hold to their scenarios for a upset, beginning next Tuesday (May 13) in Maryland and climaxing June 3 when California and seven other states decide the last 20 percent of convention delegates.
Both underdog scenarios argue:
* There is more mathematical room for Messrs. Bush and Kennedy to maneuver than published delegate accounts suggest. Their supporters see a larger "pool" of uncommitted, soft, and unbound delegates to drawn on.
* The weeks from the June 3 primary finale to the mid-July GOP convention and mid-August Democratic convention offer time for the trailing rivals to work on their opponents' "soft" delegates to get them to switch. Bush people already are contacting Reagan delegates. The Carter forces have set up a monitoring system to thwart an anticipated Kennedy raid.
At the summer conventions, the underdogs hope to "open up" the balloting procedure, freeing delegates from prior Reagan or Carter ties. Independently of the Bush campaign, Republican convention planners already have begun to debate dropping enforcement of rules binding delegates. The Bush campaign says that nearly half the convention delegates are not legally bound to candidates anyway.
Some Democrats here see the moves of New York Democrats Gov. Hugh Carey and Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan -- the governor calling for Mr. Carter and Mr. Kennedy to release their delegates to the convention, the senator declining to go to the convention as a delegate for either contender -- as setting the stage for high delegate-struggle drama at the New York City convention. News that Mr. Reagan has pulled ahead of Mr. Carter in the latest ABC-Harris survey is seen as helping Senator Kennedy's claim that the convention should be freed to reject Mr. Carter, while hurting Mr. Bush's similar maneuver against the GOP front-runner.
Both the Bush and Kennedy camps contend there are actually two delegate counts to consider, a "hard" and "soft" count.
In its calculations, the Bush campaign says only 53 percent of all delegates actually have been selected. The "soft" count gives Reagan 730, Bush 186, Rep. John B. Anderson 57, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. 4, and uncommitted 82. But of Mr. Reagan's 730 delegates, only 418 are officially bound to vote for him at the convention.
"Potentially, we could pick up 312 of his unbound delegates," says William Schuette, chief Bush delegate strategist. "There are 935 delegates yet to be selected from Maryland to California June 3. If you add the 82 so far uncommitted, the 4 Baker, and 57 Anderson to our 186 delegate base as of this week, there is a potential pool of 1,329 delegates Bush can shoot for."
"With 998 delegates needed for the nomination, we would have to take 751 delegates or two-thirds . . . to win," Mr. Schuette says.
Similarily, the Kennedy camp says the "soft" count puts them behind with 1, 444 for Carter, 791 Kennedy, 150 uncommitted, and 1 for Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. By the hard count, they still trail: 1,204 Carter, 666 Kennedy, 26 uncommitted, and 1 for Brown. But the hard count gives them more room to maneuver.
Of the delegates chosen so far, 488 are "soft," say Kennedy backers. These plus the 945 delegates remaining to be chosen by June 3 give a pool of 1,433 for the Kennedy people to work with. With 666 "hard" delegates, Mr. Kennedy needs to gain an even 1,000 of the 1,433 delegate pool, or 70 percent, to acquire the 1,666 delegates for the nomination.
Meanwhile, Carter-Mondale campaign chairman Robert Strauss and Democratic National Committee Chairman John C. White are working to head off a convention rules challenge, saying voters should not be "cheated" out of their primary or caucus decisions on the convention floor.
In rebuttle, Kennedy forces argue a rules conflict already exists in the official "call to the convention" over delegate binding, and that it should be resolved at the convention.