What's a political endorsement worth? Not much in Massachusetts

If Gary Hart wins the presidential nomination, most Massachusetts Democratic heavyweights will be tripping over each other climbing onto his campaign bandwagon.

But unless and until that happens, the Colorado senator can enjoy the freedom from indebtedness to Bay State political leaders.

Most of the prominent Democratic officeholders throughout the commonwealth have been, and seem sure to remain, Walter F. Mondale enthusiasts. Yet try as hard as they did, they were unable to deliver a victory in the Bay State presidential preference primary last month.

While the former vice-president's 25.8 percent of the statewide vote was not a disaster, it must have been disappointing to those who felt their backing would help him.

And it's a matter of speculation whether Senator Hart would have received one additional vote if Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, United States House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., and other leading Democrats here had been in his political corner.

An avalanche of endorsements might even have made it harder for Mr. Hart to win his party's presidential primary (Bay State voters being the independent lot they are). As it was, he won with 39.1 percent of the votes.

Although the lion's share of well-known Bay State Democrats are Mondale supporters, several others - notably US Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, state Senate President William M. Bulger, and Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti - found US Sen. John H. Glenn of Ohio more to their liking. But the former astronaut, whose reach for the Democratic presidential nomination ended three days after the March 13 balloting here, was preferred by only 7.3 percent of Bay Staters.

Senator Hart, on the other hand, had precious few endorsements from prominent officials around the commonwealth. Perhaps the highest-ranking Massachusetts Democrat with the Colorado senator is state auditor John J. Finnegan, one of those who accompanied him March 10 at a Worcester rally.

Many of the prominent Democrats who took sides did little more than give verbal endorsements of other presidential candidates, hoping their constituents would follow suit with votes.

However, this was not the case with Governor Dukakis, who took time from his responsibilities as chief executive to stump in Mondale's behalf. Such activities included devoting the better part of a day to campaigning in western Massachusetts less than a week before the primary, when voter-preference samplings were indicating Mondale had lost what once appeared to be a huge lead.

And the morning after the New Hampshire primary (where the former vice-president finished a not-all-that-close second to Senator Hart), both Dukakis and Mayor Flynn campaigned side by side with Mondale.

That demonstration of togetherness at the Government Center MBTA station cannot be faulted for its intent. Yet it didn't seem to accomplished much more than to spend time all three might have put to more productive use.

The Dukakis and Flynn boosts, in particular, were seen in political circles (especially within the Mondale camp) as beneficial to the Minnesota Democrat's campaign efforts in the Bay State. After all, within the past two years the governor and the mayor won their respective electoral chairs by wide margins and are presumed to have large followings of fellow Democrats.

Beyond giving a verbal endorsement, Speaker O'Neill did not appear to make an extensive effort to help attract Bay State voters to the Mondale cause. But the veteran Cambridge Democrat at least tried to help deliver a majority of the commonwealth's 116 national convention delegates.

Considerably less available to the former vice-president was even a lukewarm ''he's my man'' statement from US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Despite near-Herculean efforts by Mondale operatives, the Bay State senator was not about to get involved in the presidential campaign by supporting anyone.

If Senator Kennedy were to take sides, there is nothing to suggest his choice would have been the former vice-president, even though Mondale two years ago came to Massachusetts and spent a day on the campaign trail with Kennedy, who was up for reelection to his fourth term.

At the time, there was no hint that the senator needed anyone's endorsement to retain his seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic commonwealth. In fact, some within the 1982 Kennedy camp were not thrilled at what they considered a Mondale intrusion in the Senate campaign here. Whether Kennedy shared such feelings may never be known. Outwardly, at least, he welcomed Mondale's voluntary efforts.

Although there's no doubt Kennedy will back his party's presidential nominee, he seems sure to remain neutral during the delegate-selection season and probably up until the July Democratic National Convention.

If Kennedy had given an endorsement before the Massachusetts primary, he would probably have offended the other presidential candidates as well as the activists in their camps. This would not help him in the event he again decides to go after his party's White House nomination.

Regardless of why Senator Kennedy chose not to be involved in his state's Democratic presidential primary, his stance appears to have made good sense. Massachusetts voters who might be swayed by his endorsement chose for themselves which of the Democratic presidential aspirants merited support in the Democratic preference vote.

It just might be that Massachusetts voters - Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike - are too sophisticated to pay much attention to who is endorsing whom.

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