Pundits' view: Kennedy loser in hostage 'debate'

The emerging view from the political savants in Washington is that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has committed a serious -- and perhaps politically fatal -- blunder in alleging that President Carter had rejected a possible solution to the hostage situation.

This viewpoint is based on the following reasoning:

* Senator Kennedy has broken a fundamental law of US politics that says no political challenger should attack an incumbent president on foreign policy in time of crisis.This rule applies to all challengers, but particularly to a challenger within the president's own party.

Thus, Mr. Carter's public spanking of Senator Kennedy at the President's televised press conference Feb. 13 -- when he characterized the senator's accusations as neither "true," "accurate," nor "responsible," and as "very damaging to our country" -- undoubtedly won applause from many Americans.

There are two reasons for this expectation. Not only is Mr. Carter's credibility (trust rattin) very high, but also the public views any president as being in far the best position to know how US foreign affairs are being conducted.

* As when Senator Kennedy, earlier in the campaign, attacked the deposed Shah of Iran, there is believed to be a widespread public acceptance that political charges of the kind that the senator is making could very easily upset delicate US negotiations and possibly harm the hostages.

* Senator Kennedy's rebuttal to the President's hard-hitting attack on hom -- that his criticisms were not leveled at the country but at the President's handling of the hostages problem -- is not seem as one that is likely to score him many points.

The view here is that the senator has suffered another self-inflicted blow, one that may signal defeat in the New Hampshire primary and rule out recovery later on.

This negative judgment on the Kennedy criticisms is made by political pundits without regard to what the "facts" of the situation may be -- that is, without considering whether the senator may have been correct or partly correct in his assertions, despite the President's denials.

The point made here is that the President is in the driver's seat and people simply are going to believe Mr. Carter -- not Mr. Kennedy.

The assessment of who did what, and when, will be most difficult to sift out (particularly when much of what has been going on has been in secret). Only historians may be able to make any final judgment, years from now.

Above all, expert observers are saying here, the overwhelming advantage for Mr. Carter in this bitter exchanges with Mr. Kennedy comes from his ability, as President, to have the ear of the American public.

"A president owns the hall," one political pundit puts it. "It's a temendous advantage."

The political judgment here is that the Carter-Kennedy conflict now has become so bitter and angry that its divisive effect is improving the prospects that a Republican will be elected president in November.

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