New York — Could Sen. Edward M. Kennedy stir up such an emotional demonv stration among the delegates and in the gallery when he takes the podium Tuesday night that he might turn the 1980 Democratic National Convention in his direction?
Many here recall the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, when an outpouring of support for Adlai Stevenson seemed, for a few electrifying minutes, to be signaling a turning away from John Kennedy to the man who had led the ticket in two previous presidential years.
"Is it a possibility that Senator Kennedy will take over the convention?" a reporter asked Robert Strauss.
The answer was predictable, coming as it did from the President's political spokesman: "No," he said. In fact, he actually said almost with contempt; "Naw."
"But it is possible Kennedy could become the star of the convention?" the reporter persisted.
"I hope he will be well received, that people will be polite. He'll make a tub-thumping speech. And he's good at that. But these delegates have heard that before."
Mr. Strauss was not talking just out of hope and out of partisanship. He pointed out that the Carter people are passing out almost all of the gallery seats to their own supporters. And he underscored the capacity of the Carter forces to keep a firm hold on their own delegates and thus to see to it that any display of sentiment for Kennedy does not get out of hand.
In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Strauss assessed the damage that Kennedy has done to the President, how he sizes up a Carter-Reagan race, and why Carter is down so far in the polls.
The interview -- conducted in advance of the rules vote but with Mr. Strauss offering an unclouded prediction that Carter would win the nomination even if the "impossible happened" and he lost the rules fight -- follows:
What has the Kennedy challenge through the months been to the President?
It has been a very debilitating thing, particularly during the last few months. If he had quit qhen he lost in the nominating process, it would have been one thing. The President could have recovered without too much damage -- although there was some.
But this continous criticism of the President, every night on television -- the press gives Kennedy lots of space -- it takes its toll. No question about that. It has been very debilitating.
Then has Kennedy done a lot to pull Carter far down in the polls?
No question about that. I had hoped that during the time between the conventions the press would begin to focus on and take a hard look at what Ronald Reagan was saying: what he is saying this year; what he was saying last year; what he stood for; what the people around him think; how Reagan and his people react to critical issues affecting people's lives. That would have been very good for us. But we have lost that opportunity. Two things did it. The Kennedy challenge has kept us away from it. And the Billy [Carter] affair. Those two things have dominated the headlines.
But will this change after the convention?
Well, I don't know. Maybe it was an opportunity wasted. Maybe it will never come again. Ronald Reagan needs to be the issue. People know where Jimmy Carter is.
Yes, he's formidable. He's not a pushover by any means. But I think when people compare the substance of Reagan individually and the substance of Carter individually, they will go with Carter. I think Carter will be re-elected.
Do you think Carter will stand up well in debate?
Yes. But Reagan is a skilled debater, too. There is no question about that. A lot of people forget that he debated Bobby Kennedy; he debated Bill Buckley. He did well with both of them. he's a killed fellow.
What if the convention rejects Carter?
I feel very comfortable. I couldn't be more comfortable. In the first place , I understand these conventions. I've been to political conventions more than most people. I'e been deeply involved in them. I've put them on. I know the chemistry of them. Very few people do.
You must remember that Teddy Kennedy really hasn't been to a convention since 1960. No one thinks of that. We don't want to be arrogant. We don't want to be tough. We want to be conciliatory. But we are going to be firm.
How do you explain why the President is so far down in the polls?
The President isn't much worse off than I said he would be six months ago. You can't put a President in a campaign posture for a year, where he has, within his own party, two candidates running at him, where he has a dozen candidates running against him in the Republican Party. . . .
You realize this President has been hearing himself -- and the country has been hearing Jimmy Carter -- criticized while he has had to go about his business of running the country and minding the store.
Peopel have been hearing him criticized every morning and every night on television and radio and every morning and every afternoon in the papers -- whether it is from Ronald Reagan or George Bush, whether it is from John Connally or Howard Baker, whether it is from Ted Kennedy or one of Jerry Brown's people, or whether it is from some of those in the Senate who have their own axes to grind.
But when you come to think about the people who have been closest to the problems and with no political axes to grind, look at the support he gets from mayors. Why? Because of the way he has dealt with urban problems. They see the problems firsthand because they face them very directly.
Look at the support he gets from the County Executives Association, from the people who really face the American public every day. He's endorsed by the county executives. He's endorsed by the mayors. He's endorsed by the governors.
The fact that he generates this kind of support from those in office who are closest to the American people shows he is doing something right for the states, shows he is doing something right for the people.
Well, if the President is doing those things right, why don't we see it in the polls?
Well, he has gone through a year of having to deal with terribly difficult issues.Some unavoidable and some possibly avoidable.
Who would dream of a president who would have to deal with a 125 percent increase in OPEC [oil]? Who has to deal with a vicious invasion of Afghanistan? Who has to deal with an irresponsible group of almost-criminals who have taken the hostages and where there is no structure to work with? When you deal with Russia, there is a structure. But with Iran there is nothing.
It was hard to deal with a brother he couldn't control. He's had to deal with all these things. This President has had his share of grief. But despite all this, I want to tell you something:
You have these polls taken. They fluctuate because people react. A poll taken will reflect the frustrations of people generally. If they are frustrated with the city council, or frustrated with no rain on the farm, or frustrated with with the high cost of living.
Whatever they are frustrated about, the President shares those frustrations -- in fact, he bears the brunt of those frustrations. But in spite of all of that, there is one common thread that runs through this. The people of this country have a feeling that Jimmy Carter shares with them the same values they have about this nation, about their families, and about themselves. That he cares. That's why they are going to vote for him.
But why won't the voters still go for Reagan over CarteR, particularly if their frustrations continue, as they probably will?
Because people generally have a feeling that Ronald Reagan doesn't really share with them their frustrations and really doesn't have the same values they have.They know that.
So right now, the polls reflect the frustrations of people about the life around them. But when they get ready to vote, the first week in November, the people will start saying, "What's best for me and my country?" Then it will be Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan. It's not going to be Jimmy Carter vs. perfection.