Time is running out for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to overtake President Carter. The foreign affairs crises in Iran and Afghanistan -- which which continue to hang heavy over the American political landscape -- appear to be shortening the "window" for the Democratic challenger.
Even as Iowa voters go to the polls to cast ballots in the nation's first caucuses today (Jan. 21), some observers give Mr. Kennedy just eight weeks to shed his underdog status. This would be until the mid-March Illinois primary, when a fourth of the convention delegates will have been selected, political experts agree. Illinois comes after the New England and Southeast primaries, and it starts the Midwest run of primaries that ends with Ohio June 3.
By March 25, after Connecticut and New York, 40 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention will have been apportioned and the pattern for the rest of the race likely set.
For the Republicans, the timing of a lifting of the Iran- Afghan preoccupation is not so crucial. The crisis has cooperated with Ronald Reagan's front-runner strategy of a low-profile, hold-on-to-the-lead approach. But his rivals are expected to be able to show whether they can chip away at the Reagan lead, beginning with the Iowa caucuses today, regardless of the play of international events in coming weeks.
"Eight weeks could be enough time for events to begin to shift in Kennedy's favor," says Albert H. Cantril, president of the National Council on Public Polls. "The public is already showing impatience over Carter's Iranian inaction."
"But it's a very volatile time," Mr. Cantril says. "The public is being asked to assimilate unique events in Iran and the foreboding Soviet moves. Cold-war sentiments are being brought to the fore. The people are looking for leadership to put policy in perspective.
"This creates an opportunity for Democratic candidates like kennedy and [ California Gov. Edmund G.] brown, as well as Republicans like [Kansas Sen. Robert] Dole. They can argue that Carter has no Persian Gulf Policy, that he has been naive regarding Soviet intentions. The administration is vulnerable. The freeing of the hostages would open up the situation to an inquiry on these issues. Events are the wild card as always."
Failure of Senator Kennedy to break the Iran-Afghan hold on voter attention, to seize the political center stage, points up a weakness evident in his campaign from the start, says Paul Lutzker, a Democratic strategist with William R. Hamilton & Staff, a Washington polling and consulting firm. The Kennedy campaign was vulnerable from the beginning "because of his misperception of what he had to do to be credible candidate," Mr. Lutzker says. "He does not yet have a clear rationale for his candidacy. He did not have a plan to deal with the continuing Chappaquiddick issue. He was not prepared to deal with the President's drawing attention to foreign problems rather than to domestic problems."
"However, anybody trying to call the race step by step is going to make a mistake," Mr. Lutzker warns. "There will still be surprises. At the end of March, there will likely still be a race.
"The question is whether Kennedy will be the issue -- his family life, Chappaquiddick. Or whether Carter is the issue -- his international leadership, whether he has moved the country in the direction the country wants to go in, and where he would take the country from 1980 to 1984.
"So far, the closest Kennedy has come to putting the contest in this form has been the malaise issue -- arguing that Carter can't blame the people for the country's problems.
"But this isn't enough. He has not yet offered a comprehensive alternative rationale and plan.
"The campaign is on hold, basically because of the international situation," says James David Barber, a Duke University presidential scholar. "There has to be a change from the way things are now, keeping the campaign on hold. The whole atmosphere is so serious. In other years, the start of a campaign was better humored. There was more of a here-we-go-again spirit.
"The tension has to be broken. It is inimical to the interests of the other candidates and to the press. So far, coverage has concentrated on style, campaigning methods, [George] Bush running around in his airplane and making commercials."
Still, Mr. Barber and others say Senator Kennedy will have a hard time changing the spirit and course now stubbornly set by foreign issues.
"Kennedy should get to the old Honey-Fitz stump style," he suggests. "But what does he have to offer, substantively? What are his alternatives? We still don't know."