Battling to get his presidential campaign back on track after the Iowa derailment, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is expected to spend much of the next five weeks here in New England, scene of the next four crucial political tests.
The Massachusetts Democrat returned to the campaign stump Jan. 30. A talk at Northeastern University in Boston and a reception at his downtown headquarters were scheduled.
Setting the stage for his New England campaign foray, the senator, in a paid television broadcast beamed to the region Jan. 28, attempted to counter upswelling public references to his 1969 auto accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned.
Viewers in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire heard him once again declare that he told the truth concerning the incident and took full responsibility for what happened. "Judge me by the basic American standard of fairness, not on the basis of gossip and speculation," he urged.
While Kennedy aides remain optimistic concerning his prospects for winning the March 4 Massachusetts primary, they are taking nothing for granted. And they are considerably less confident of the outcome of three other tests in the senator's political backyard.
Deemed particularly crucial are the Feb. 10 Democratic municipal caucuses in Maine and the Feb. 26 New Hampshire primary. Mr. Kennedy canceled campaign plans in the area last weekend to prepare his Jan. 28 Georgetown University speech in his TV broadcast. But now he appears ready to go all out in both Maine and New Hampshire.
Kennedy campaign strategists in New England are apprehensive that a narrow win by their candidate -- even in New Hampshire, where the latest published poll showed him trailing President Carter by up to 25 points -- might not be enough to turn things around and give his candidacy momentum.
Although the lion's share of his personal campaign activity over the next month may be in the Granite State, the senator, especially once the Maine caucuses are out of the way, seems sure to cross over into Vermont, which has its presidential primary March 4, the same day as Massachusetts.
The new emphasis in the New England Kennedy campaign, particularly in the advertising, will be on regional rather than national issues. The senator is expected to talk a lot more about the high cost of New England's energy prices and job training for the unemployed than about his program for national health insurance.
One voting bloc which Kennedy aides consider particularly crucial to the success of his campaign in New England are college students, among whom they feel the candidate already has considerable support.
Kennedy loyalists generally anticipate California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. will finish a distant third in New Hampshire, but in the process hurt the senator's candidacy by picking up anti-Carter votes. Success of the Kennedy campaign effort, particularly in New Hampshire, could hinge on his reaching voters in the southern third of the state, many of them liberal Democrats who have moved up there from neighboring Massachusetts.
Although a simple majority victory for Senator Kennedy in New Hampshire would be enough to give his candidacy an important boost, it is generally agreed that anything short of a very big win here in Massachusetts would be a reversal.
Ted Kennedy has never run for any other office. He has never polled less than 66 percent of the Democratic primary vote in three Senate elections, and has easily defeated his Republican opponents in four general elections. Four years ago, when he last ran for the Senate and had three challengers for the Democratic nomination, he was favoted by 7 out of 10 of those voters who went to the polls.