The Kennedy counterattack may be falling short in Maine.Only his last-ditch campaigning before next Sunday's (Feb. 10) caucusing can pull it out. This is the assessment that is growing among expert observers in this state -- coupled with the "feel" visiting political reporters are getting.
The campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is intensifying. Now he is saying that the United States is developing "war hysteria" because of foreign policy failures of the Carter administration. The implication is that this "hysteria" is being generated by President Carter.
Also, wherever the Massachusetts Senator goes in New England these days he is hitting the President hard for not debating. He now charges it is "hogwash" that by sharing a platform with another presidential contender Mr. Carter would be endangering the hostages in Iran.
This hard-slugging approach apparently has halted Mr. Kennedy's post-Iowa slippage and bolstered the morale of Kennedy campaign workers.
But by going so hard on the offensive, the Massachusetts senator also has stirred the Carter camp into renewed activity. There is no post-Iowa complacency among the Carterites in Maine.
Will the Kennedy last-minute onslaught pay off? Only time will tell. But the current appraisal comes down to this:
* Senator Kennedy still is being hurt by what has simply come to be known as "Chappaquiddick," but could be more broadly described as a general negative reading of his character. Thus, Mr. Kennedy's TV defense last week of his actions at Chappaquiddick does not appear to have helped him much with Maine voters.
* The senator's "dovish" approach to the Afghanistan crisis and the Soviets does not go over too well in Maine. Many Democrats here are more like Democrats in Iowa than like those in Massachusetts: They like a President who stands up to the Soviets.
* Some Maine Democrats are being moved to rally behind "Fighting Ted Kennedy" as one politician referred to him. But some are being turned off by what they see as Kennedy's harassment of the President.
Says one key Democrat who had up to recently been favoring Mr. Kennedy:
"I think Kennedy is hurting his campaign here by an approach that is contrived to be contra simply for the sake of disagreement. That is, Kennedy's constant disagreement with Carter sounds phony -- just old-fashioned politics. And people I talk to aren't buying it."
Another top Democratic official, who at least publicly is remaining impartial , commented: "Two weeks ago I told reporters that Kennedy was 10 percent ahead. Now I say it's 50-50, and Kennedy still is slipping."
* A strong effort here on behalf of California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. seems to be making headway, enough to very likely cut substantially into Kennedy's total.
Once again -- as in Iowa -- only a relatively small percentage of registered voters will participate in the caucusing.
But, again like Iowa, there is much more interest in this year's contest than there was four years ago.
Thus, it is estimated that some 10,000 to 12,000 enrolled Maine Democrats will vote on Sunday -- some 4 to 5 percent of registered party members.
Four years ago, 6,800 Democrats, about 3 percent of those registered, participated in the caucusing.