THE real reason that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy bowed out of the 1988 presidential race seems to be still untold. From those close to the senator it can now be written, with what seems to be certainty, that he turned back just as he was about to throw his hat definitively into the ring, because economists told him that the country's economic outlook was unfavorable to his prospects. For months Kennedy had been running hard. In his comments and congressional votes he had been trying to position himself away from the left and toward the center. His slimming down was no accident.
Furthermore, influential Americans who could be counted on to give all-out assistance to a Kennedy campaign for the presidency had been -- in the words of one -- ``getting ready for Teddy.''
Then, several weeks back, the senator undertook some research. He talked privately with leading economists all around the country -- at length with Walter Heller, among others. All told him that the state of the economy for the next few years was not conducive to his being elected president.
They saw no economic disaster, nor deep recession, out of which Kennedy or any other liberal could fashion victory. Instead, they foresaw an economy that would rock along well enough to shape a political climate in which the Reagan conservative line -- less government and less spending -- would be the ticket to the White House.
For quite a while the senator has known that he would have to muffle his liberalism to gain the presidency that thus far has eluded him. And in the context of reducing the immense budget deficit, he had begun to talk of the need for responsibility in government. He had even sought to become the champion of cutting spending -- not exactly his posture over the years.
He was able to move in this more conservative direction without feeling he was compromising his basic views. He feels that to further his humanitarian position -- which still holds that help for the disadvantaged rests on federal government solutions and aid -- Congress must put its economic house in order.
Kennedy was hurt by criticism from his fellow liberals, who interpreted his more conservative moves as entirely and crassly political.
When Kennedy voted for mandatory deficit reduction -- the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings resolution -- he was appalled by the angry protest he evoked in the liberal community, much of it from close political friends.
Kennedy had thought liberals would understand that he would have to bend somewhat toward the center to be able to gain the presidency and that he felt Gramm-Rudman, while a bad bill, was the best Congress could do at this time to apply needed budgetary discipline to itself.
When Kennedy began his calls to economists, he was stinging from rebuffs by those who were potential supporters in a presidential race. He felt he had bent only slightly with the wind, only to face such vehement opposition.
Economists compounded his problem by giving him the ``bad'' news about the reasonably good economic climate that lay ahead. Then Kennedy knew that if he persisted in his candidacy, he would be in for what a friend says the senator called, ``a lot of unpleasantness.''
He believed if he ran as a liberal purist, he would not stand a chance of winning. He became convinced that he could not, in all conscience, move so far to the right that he would be running as a Reaganite. And he considered that continuing to push his views that government needs to be more responsibile in its spending would alienate him further from his liberal constituency.
Kennedy foresaw a campaign in which he would have the worst of both worlds: He would never achieve credibility with conservatives and would lose much of his traditional liberal support.
Surprising those who were closest to him, Kennedy therefore dropped out of a race in which he was already deeply involved, but in time to avoid the pain that he saw clearly lying ahead.
And in time to look ahead to another day when the climate for his running might be more conducive to victory.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.