New York — On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy forces still questioned whether "enough combustibility" had been generated to unseat Jimmy Carter as the party's repeat nominee.
Polls show the President down in popularity to the lowest levels recorded for an incumbent at convention time. In the past month, Senator Kennedy has come from a 60-34 drubbing against the President in standing among Democrats nationally to 47 for Carter and 43 for Kennedy in the Gallup poll.
Here in New York, in the last pre-convention hours, forces seeking to open the convention -- by releasing delegates from pledges to candidates on the first ballot -- continued their drive, courting support from Hispanics, unions, and other special-interest groups.
The Kennedy forces found themselves close, but perhaps not close enough -- 75 to 150 votes short by their count, 300 short by the Carter count -- to throw the convention open.
Some Kennedy supporters argued they had to consider dramatic new tactics, such as the senator's withdrawing as a candidate and releasing his delegates -- helping win the rules fight and open the way for another alternate to Carter as the nominee.
Win or lose, Ted Kennedy finds himself leading his party's classic liberal wing against the Carter conservatives in the Democratic nomination playoffs this week.
By agreeing on the night-to-night scenario, pitting the Carter and Kennedy forces in prime time on television, the two sides have at least committed themselves to presenting the Democratic Party to the viewing public as orderly and responsible -- if divided. Instead of turmoil on the floor, the stage appears set to decide the outcome on up-and-down votes.
If Kennedy wins, his political prospectus will be prompty rewritten in glowing terms.
If he loses, he will at least be regarded as a determined and effective political force, and leader of his party's diverse liberal wing.
In the three main events here at Madison Square Garden -- tonight's rules fight over releasing delegates on the first ballot, Tuesday night's platform debate on economic policy, and Wednesday's nomination showdown -- the Carter forces hold the advantage with their 2-to-1 delegate lead.
But even if Kennedy loses each day's round -- not an entirely foregone conclusion -- he retains political leverage for the next test.
His refusal to say in advance he would support the party's eventual nominee -- bolstered by open hints he might encourage independent John Anderson's efforts -- helps force Carter toward a more liberal stance.
Tactically, Kennedy's refusal to release his own 1,300 delegates (arguing technically they are released unless and until bound by the rules vote tonight) has been the wedge for opening the door to other presidential prospects like Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie and Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Henry M. Jackson of Washington.
Senator Kennedy's challenge to President Carter began impressively with a hometown send-off last Nov. 7 in Boston's Faneuil Hall. But his 2-to-1 poll advantage over the President fas eroded in the realities of the campaign. The Iran crisis, the public's unsettled views of what is commonly referred to as "Chappaquiddick" or the "character issue," a fumbling campaign and lack of focus on issues, the Carter "rose garden" strategy -- all helped reverse the Kennedy edge. By the March 18 Illinois primary, all but a few political experts counted Kennedy out of the nomination race.
Nonetheless, to the surprise of those who counted him out, the senator has survived to force a showdonw here in Madison Square Garden.
Kennedy's own delegates are his convention base. But he is aided by congressional colleagues and union leaders who fear Carter might lead the Democrats to defeat in November.
He is helped, too, by the ambitions of younger politicians who see the hope that convention turmoil might open the way for them to spring to power.
Interest groups like the National Organization for Women and the energy lobbies are using the Kennedy candidacy for leverage. The alternative, they say , might be to support John Anderson in the fall.
Even the party's old presidential warriors -- the Muskies and Jacksons -- have lately heard welcome "Hail to the Chief" strains again, thanks to the Kennedy survival.
Senator Kennedy might be called the Democratic liberals' "music man" for 1980 , a rallying point like Eugene J. McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Morris K. Udall (briefly) in 1976.
"In the broad sense, without the Kennedy candidacy an important viewpoint would have been missing in the election," says Leon Shull, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action. "He has become the spokesperson for liberalism -- government intervention in behalf of people -- that has been crucial in our history the past 50 years. Anyone, even Ronald Reagan, can see this is a better country than it was before FDR -- in economic security, health care, equality for minorities and women, protection for consumers, protection for the environment, even a better foreign policy.
In the long cycles of liberal and conservative dominance, the liberals are on the defensive, Mr. Shull concedes. "We're not going to quit," he says. "We feel good about the way Kennedy has carried the liberal standard."
On the eve of the convention, analysts divided over how much Senator Kennedy had rehabilitated himself as a future political force. His late-hour closeness to the hawkish Senator Jackson and traditionalist Sen. Robert Byrd suggests he might be positioning himself for a "mainstream" stance in 1984.
"From the voter's standpoint, Kennedy now is a different person from when he started last fall," says Mervin Field, director of the California poll. "He is no longer the brother of Jack and Bobby. The ahrd knocks of the campaign have transformed his political personality. He's lost some of the magical qualities.
"Shorn of his mystique, he may be on the verge of a whole new career."
Mr. Field continues: "The significant thing is, Ted's made his own mark the past year. I think he's probably geared for 1984. If so, the best thing for Kennedy in '84 is Carter in '80.
"If you want to rebuild the Democratic Party with new leadership, you have to go down with Carter now, Kennedy now is a block to an alternative as well as the single largest force in derailing Carter.
"This is not a liberal year. If you were Machiavellian, you might say the only way to get somebody new is to be the battering ram and then withdraw and throw support to someone else. This would be made out as a sacrifice and restorative for his [Kennedy's] image in '84. In another election, Chappaquiddick is not likely to be as potent as it was last fall."
Mr. Field concludes: "Kennedy has matured. He still stutters and stammers at times. Yet now he's more coherent and consistent.
"He's established as his own man."
Kennedy's stature however, may momentarily be inflated by the winds of the "anyone but Carter" movement, just as Carter's standing may be partly due to his incumbency and anti-Kennedy sentiment, some political activists say.
"There's nothing organized about the dump-Carter movement," says Roger Craver , a leading fund-raiser for Democratic candidates and progressive groups like Common Cause. "Kennedy stands as the symbol of the disillusionment with Carter, more than he stands as the symbol for a new political direction."
Ted Kennedy's challenge to Jimmy Carter has given "disparate" politicians and forces "a procedural way to register their discontent," Mr. Craver says.
The convention this week will yield no lasting solution to the tensions within the Democratic Party, in his view. "That party ain't a party," he quips. "They're going to thrash around and try to define the problem. But the convention is designed to confirm the guy who did his homework beforehand -- and that's Carter."
The chief immediate post-convention benefactor may be independent presidentail candidate John Anderson, not Kennedy, Craver feels. "The progressive groups are still doing very well with their fund raising and memberships," he says. "Groups like NOW [the National Organization for Women], the abortion-rights people, will move for the election of anyone but Reagan.They see the emergence of the new right, the chance the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] can go down to defeat. They see they will have to break their historic chains of non-involvement in presidental politics.
"NOW has seen Carter's lack of leadership on ERA. They've supported the open convention. The only other candidate speaking out is Anderson. They're left with Carter if Anderson drops out."
Despite the reported liberal demise, progressive remain a force in American politics, Craver says. "Over a million people are active in issues like family planning, abortion rights, and handgun control. They vote in extraordinarily high numbers. And that's significant in this election year."
Some political analysts feel the negative impact of Chappaquiddick will never fade enough to give Kennedy a clear shot at the presidency. Others see him linked to liberal solutions of a bygone era.
And some younger Democratic activits think that neither he nor Carter seems to have anticipated the issues of the 1980s that could lead to more powerful Democratic policy stance.
The prospect for opening the Democratic nomination issue anew here in New York picked up the spirits of campaign-weary partisans, says Bronwen Tudor, executive director of the Maine Democratic Committee. "It's like a wind starting to freshen when you've been becalmed," she says. "But to be perfectly honest about it, it doesn't seem realistic."
The Democratic campaign has not gotten to the heart of the problem, which Mrs. Tudor says is economic: "Economically, nobody's really trying to find long-range solutions in a consistent way to solve the problems.'
Richard Stearns, a top Kennedy strategist, agrees that the nation's problems are fundamentally economic and that the 1980 campaign has not brought the point into focus.
"Kennedy thinks he can win," Mr. Stearns says. "He says the issues are more important than his candidacy. He believes Carter has taken a turn much too far to the right, which must be resisted to the last possible moment if the Kenendy tradition is to have any validity.
"Looking to the future, Kennedy is nearer right," Stearns says. "But Kennedy's ideas are not really more contemporary than Carter's. We haven't really tried liberalism for a dozen years -- not really from the last years of Johnson through the Nixon years -- not since the Vietnam war.
"Our problems are fundamentally economic, like Britain's. We have failed to develop a capital structure to make capitalism work. Can the private market reindustrialize this country?
"Ironically," says Stearns, "Jerry Brown may have been the most prophetic candidate in 1980. The country must figure some way to bring large amounts of capital into play. Only government can help do that."
Tudor and Stearns reflect a widespread view among younger Democrats that the party must develop new talent by 1984.
Meanwhile, Senator Kennedy -- even if he loses this week as widely expected -- could take comfort in the view of Thomas E. Patterson, Syracuse University election expert. Mr. Patterson says: "Carter's going to ahve to run as Kennedy would run -- as a New Deal Democrat trying to put together black, labor, and urban support. He will have to make appeals directly, specifically to blacks, the poor, the elderly, cities. That's the kind of campaign Kenedy would have run.
"Carter would like to run an Eisenhower peace and prosperity campaign, but the public won't allow that," Patterson says. "He will have to run not on his record, but on traditional Democratic loyalties. Overriding his record will not be an easy task, but I see no other route."