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Kennedy prospects for '84

By Godfrey Sperling Jr.Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau / March 1, 1982



Washington

It's ''here-we-go-again'' time. A new Gallup poll shows that Democrats around the country heavily favor Ted Kennedy over Walter Mondale for their party's 1984 presidential nomination.

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The poll is early, but it is meaningful. It says that Kennedy now has all the encouragement he would need (and indications are he would need very little) to become involved once again in the quest for the presidency.

Some political writers believe the Massachusetts senator wore out the Chappaquiddick problem in the 1980 race and is now able to launch a candidacy unencumbered by this handicap. But far and away the dominant view expressed by Kennedy watchers runs along these lines:

* Despite early polls, Kennedy, because of Chappaquiddick and now also because of his marital problems, probably will be denied the nomination again.

* With each year that passes, the magic and drawing power of the Kennedy name lessens. The disclosure of the John Kennedy tapes has doubtless reduced that appeal and hence Senator Kennedy's ability to lean upon it.

* Should Kennedy somehow win the nomination, he simply isn't electable. A further and intensive media replay of Chappaquiddick during the general election campaign would assure the victory of any reasonably good Republican opponent whose personal morality has not come into question.

* Thus Kennedy, by continuing to run in what really is a hopeless race for him, ends up merely damaging his party's prospects.

Kennedy did a lot last time to help defeat Carter. He rallied anti-Carter sentiment in an effort to deprive Carter of the nomination. This split was never healed. Kennedy never gave more than tepid, token support to Carter at and after the national convention.

Mondale may well defeat Kennedy in the primaries. Carter was far behind Kennedy in the early polls, too. But when the media started to pummel Kennedy over Chappaquiddick, his lead faded fast, enabling Carter, who was sinking in the polls, to lead his party's ticket once again.

So Mondale may prevail. But in the process how is he to avoid another party split that will make his election very difficult if not impossible? He already is downplaying his tie with Carter in an effort to withhold at least some of the liberal vote from Kennedy. But divisiveness and bitterness between Kennedy and Mondale is probably unavoidable. Kennedy people have good memories. And they distinctly recall how rough Mondale was on the senator during the 1980 primaries.

Kennedy has had another negative effect on his party. Ever since Robert Kennedy's assassination the very possibility that he might be a candidate has often discouraged some very attractive Democratic politicians from entering the race. Even now one wonders what will happen if Kennedy comes thundering in to the contest. Even the popular Fritz Mondale might decide that Kennedy is too formidable to take on.

There might be some other Democrats - like the politically attractive John Glenn, for example, who has close ties with the Kennedys - who might also decide to defer to Kennedy and drop out of the race.

The issue here is not whether Kennedy would or would not make a good president but whether he is electable. A fair number of political observers continue to think that, while the American voters are forgiving, most are still uncompromising in their demand that the president of the United States be a person whose personal morality has been such (or at least appears to be such) as to set an example for them and especially for their children.

Beyond that, they believe that once Americans are reminded of Chappaquiddick, a substantial number will be unwilling to allow a man to have his finger on the nuclear war button who has admitted that his erratic behavior at Dike Bridge, and for hours afterward, stemmed from panic.