Washington — Neither of the two men who may decide the presidential election in 1980 were at the Republican convention in Detroit: They are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois, once a Republican candidate and now an independent.
Mr. Kennedy probably cannot get the Democratic nomination himself at the party's convention in New York City Aug. 11-14, but he could exercise a "spoiler" role that would split the Democrats and defeat President Carter.
Mr. Anderson is at the crucial point in his third-party candidacy when he will either rise spectacularly to be a formidable candidate against the others, or swiftly collapse. The latest Gallup Poll gives him 16 percent, as against 43 percent for the Reagan-Bush ticket and 34 percent for the Carter-Mondale ticket, with 7 percent undecided.
Experienced observers do not put too much credence in polls at this point in a campaign which may not take final shape until a week or two before the election, but for Anderson the immediate situation could be crucial. He will either take off now or he won't, and the direction will probably be visible in the next few weeks.
Nobody knows how far Kennedy will push his fight. His lacerating attacks on President Carter have given the Republicans glee and were frequently quoted at Detroit. Kennedy aggressively declares that he represents the true liberal wing of the party and that Carter, besides being weak and vacillating, has sold out to the conservatives.
Kennedy advocates wage and price controls and particularly opposes decontrol of oil. Kennedy has support from liberal and trade union groups that see him as heir to Franklin Roosevelt as well as to his brothers John and Robert. He has pushed his criticism of President Carter, it is felt here, almost to the breaking point. At Detroit, John Connally whipped the White House with quotations from Kennedy: "The [Carter] administration doesn't know the first thing about running the economy . . . Our foreign policy is out of contrl . . .." Kennedy is young and ambitious and may seek the nomination in 1984 if he fails now, but his position within the party is at stake in the next three weeks; if he cannot find an accommodation soon, the split with Carter may be irretrievable.
The next few weeks will be critical, too, for John Anderson. As voters watched proceedings at Detroit, were some of them -- and how many -- turned off by proceedings to seek a third candidate? What happens after the Carter-Kennedy fracas in New York?
Anderson seems unlikely to get a majority of electoral votes himself, but conceivably he could get enough to throw the election into the US House of Representatives.
This is Anderson's decisive moment. He has supporters: "By far the best qualified of the candidates in the field," concluded syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft on June 22. Few others go that far.
Anderson now needs a strong running mate. The next few weeks will tell whether his romantic flight has taken off or must be scrubbed.