Washington — It seems clear now that Senator Kennedy did the President a big favor by deciding to take him on. * First and foremost, Kennedy by running himself made it impossible for some other Democrat who might have had a better chance against the President to make the race.
* Also, Kennedy has thus provided the President with an almost weekly fare of victories -- starting with straw-vote tests in Florida and a caucus win in Iowa.
Except for a few primaries, like Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, Kennedy's presence in this long campaign has given the President a string of triumphs -- accomplishments which Mr. Carter could cite to offset the problems he was encountering elsewhere.
So at the same time the Soviets were invading Afghanistan, the hostages were being held in Iran, and the economy was moving into recession and high inflation , Mr. Carter has usually been able to say something like, "Hey, look over there. I'm beating Kennedy again."
The President, too, has been able to convince many people that he was defeating Kennedy with one arm tied behind him -- by winning while having to stay away from campaigning because of crises abroad.
Of course, some observers thought Carter got the best of both worlds out of his Rose Garden strategy: By making phone calls into primary states, he was really campaigning. And by staying in Washington he was conducting the best kind of campaign -- one that caused many people to vote for him simply because they felt he was doing the right thing by keeping a close eye on crucial problems.
* Additionally, the Kennedy challenge has given the President's political organization a good tuning up for the fall campaign.
Now it is true that some Carter people are saying that the continued Kennedy race is beginning to damage Carter prospects for the general election by preventing the President's political team from giving full focus to Ronald Reagan.
But the fact is that the Carter political organization will be fully ready for Reagan -- better able to take him on -- because of this tuning-up operation, as protracted as it has become.
So, up to now, Carter can thank Kennedy -- for helping a President who was at low ebb in the polls to be renominated and for getting him into fighting trim for the general election.
True, the Kennedy challenge in the end could prove much less than a favor to the President if it ends up by dividing the party, weakening the Carter effort against Reagan.
But it appears now that Kennedy is going to stop short of bringing about that much divisiveness. It now seems likely that he will find some accomodation with the President, probably in the platform, enough so that he will be able to join forces with Carter in an effort to keep a Republican out of the White House.
Actually, the continued Kennedy challenge will keep public attention on the Democratic side of the presidential selection process right up to and into the convention. This is in sharp contrast with the Reagan problem of trying to retain voter interest in his bid for the GOP nomination now that George Bush has dropped out of contention.
So it is that Carter owes Kennedy a great deal -- and has owed him a political debt for a long while. Indeed, it can be argued that it was while several well-known Democrats were waiting for Kennedy to decide four years ago about running for president that Carter -- coming from out of nowhere -- was able to step into the vacuum and launch a winning campaign.
A leading Washington political analyst has this to say on the rise of Carter: "While others were waiting for Kennedy, Carter was out there working and moving forward. And, by the time it was clear that Ted wasn't going to run, Jimmy had been given all the head start he needed."
Kennedy obviously doesn't see himself as Carter's friend or, indeed, as someone who really is making it virtually impossible for his liberal-oriented wing of the party to win the presidential nomination.
When, if ever, will Kennedy come to realize that his flaws keep him from winning the prize itself and his continued presence as a possible candidate keeps other attractive and politically like-minded Democrats from possibly getting the nomination?