Washington — The "stop Carter" movement might be successful if it were not for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. So confide some of the leaders of the effort to open the Democratic National Convention to a choice other than the President.
"Many of the delegates don't want Kennedy more than they don't want Carter," one leader in this movement comments wryly. "And so many of them are afraid to move away from Carter to support an open convention simply because they think it would give the nomination to Kennedy -- if it went to anyone other than Carter."
So once again, as happened during the primaries, Senator Kennedy seems to be helping the President more than he is hurting him. This time, however, he has become an important factor in holding delegates to the President.
During the primaries, the fact that Senator Kennedy was less acceptable to the Democratic voters than was the President helped Carter look good week after week in the election results even when he was not faring well in the popularity polls.
Kennedy does have 1,200 convention delegates. Therefore, he would ligically be the beneficiary of delegates seeking an alternative. And he still might be.
But many political leaders and observers here in Washington say ironically that the likelihood of Kennedy's capturing the nomination is slim for the same reason there is a move to deplace Carter -- both appear unelectable.
Current pools still show Kennedy also would lose to Republican Ronald Reagan -- and by a larger margin than Carter.
So those who might be more acceptable alternatives to the convention delegates -- among them, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, Vice-President Walter Mondale, Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, and Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington -- sit in the wings stymied by a runner-up who is well- positioned to take the nomination away from Carter but probably too politically unpalatable to the delegates and to Democats in general to be able to turn the convention in his direction.
"Put Muskie in that same strong position that Kennedy is in today," one political analyst says, "and I think he might get the nomination at the convention. This President is in trouble. And he is vulnerable to a convention challenge -- but not from Kennedy. And kennedy gets in the way of others being able to get the nomination."
Says one veteran president-watcher: "Teddy can't get the nomination himself, but he keeps other good people from getting it. That's the lesson of this political campaign."
This observer further speculates: "Could it be possible that one outcome of this campaign will be that Teddy will retire -- or be retired -- permanently as a possible presidential candidate? If so, I think it will be a real benefit to the liberal wing of the party, which can't mount an effective bid to gain the presidency as long as Kennedy remains in the wings."
Meanwhile, Kennedy keeps pursuing a particularly heavy campaign schedule as well as his strong criticism of the President. He has told some of his associates that he is hoping for a turn of events that will play into his hands.
Until a few weeks ago the Kennedy determination to continue on seemed almost foolish.
And then came the Billy Carter affair, which now has added a new and particularly heavy burden to the President, who already is laden with negative baggage.
So events are vastly improving the prospects of a challenge to Carter at the convention. This is what Kennedy has been waiting for. But at this point it would appear that even if such a challenge is successful, the senator may not be the chief beneficiary.