Connecticut primary: overshadowed, but not insignificant

Connecticut's upcoming presidential primary hasn't drawn as much attention as neighboring New York's on the same day. But the vote here will convey its own particular message to the candidates and pundits regarding both the Democratic and Republican contests.

Among questions to be answered by those who vote in this state March 25:

* Does Sen. Edward M. Kennedy have enough appeal among Connecticut's Democrats to make it a close contest, despite popular Gov. Ella Grasso's backing of President Carter?

* On the Republican side, can liberal Illinois Rep. John B. Anderson continue the political momentum already gained in New England by faring well in a state where independent and crossover Democratic votes are impossible?

* Can Connecticut native son George Bush soundly trounce both his main challengers in his home state, and perhaps salvage his faltering campaign?

* Can conservative former California Gov. Ronald Reagan score heavily in a state loaded with moderate and liberal Republicans?

Connecticut boosters of Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bush are considerably relieved by the decision of former President Gerald Ford not to seek the Republican nomination this year. But they are inceasingly apprehensive over the political strength of Mr. Reagan.

With the campaign here in its final days, those who had been pushing the Ford candidacy, even though his name was not on the ballot and "write-in" votes are not allowed, are rallying behind other candidates. Several of them, including West Hartford attorney Joseph B. Burns, have thrown their support behind Mr. Bush, viewed as a political moderate and thus closest philosophically to Mr. Ford among the three leading GOP contenders.

The Anderson organization, however, still hopes to gain the support of some of the Ford activists.

Mr. Bush, who grew up in Connecticut and has strong family ties here, has been considered the front-runner on the Republican primary ballot. Since the March 4 Massachusetts and Vermont primaries, in which Mr. Anderson finished a strong second, the candidacy of the Illinois congressman has taken deepening root in Connecticut.

Busloads of students and other committed to the Anderson drive have come to Connecticut to push his candidacy.

The primary here is not an "open" one -- that is, people registered in one party cannot "cross over" and vote in the primary of another party. Nor can those still registered as independents cast primary ballots. This is a disadvantage to the Anderson candidacy. Democrats will not be able to write in Mr. Anderson's name the way some did in the earlier Massachusetts primary. No write-ins are permitted in Connecticut.

Independent voters had until March 10 enroll in either party. Some 10,000 beat the deadline, and most of them registered as Republicans, presumably to support Mr. Anderson, whose organization mounted a major campaign to line up support from outside party ranks.

Although Connecticut Republicans tend to be more moderate-to-liberal than conservative, Reagan forces are well organized. Former Gov. John Davis Lodge, the brother of former United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, is a key Reagan activist. Other prominent Connecticut supporters of the California conservative include Frederick Biebel, who resigned his state GOP chairmanship to join the Reagan campaign.

Besides Mr. Burns, who headed the Ford-for-President move here in 1976, the Bush support team includes Stewart McKinney, the state's only Republican congressman, and John Alsop, the Connecticut national GOP committeeman.

The largely youth-oriented Anderson effort here is headed by Hartford City Councillor Sidney Gardner. "Endorsements don't win campaigns," he asserts, adding that the political tide among both liberals and moderates is in the direction of his candidate.

Besides Messrs. Anderson, Bush, and Reagan, US Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois is on the March 25 Connecticut Republican ballot. He has not, however, conducted an active campaign here.

At stake are 35 delegate seats for the Republican nominating convention in Detroit July 14-18. This is less than one-third the 123 delegates to be chosen the same day by GOP voters in New York. Unlike the Empire State, however, the choice here involves candidates whose names are on the ballot, rather than delegate slates.

Despite considerable campaign effort by Senator Kennedy's backers, his campaign has not caught fire in Connecticut.

President Carter, with the backing of Governor Grasso, appears to be the front-runner. Besides the popularity vote, 54 seats at the Aug. 11-14 Democratic National Convention in New York City will be determined.

The Kennedy candidacy has the backing of four of the five Connecticut Democratic congressmen, including Christopher Dodd, who is running for the US Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who is not taking sides in the presidential primary.

Kennedy forces are counting heavily on strong support from blue-collar workers, especially members of labor unions, as well as voters from minority and ethnic groups.

"Ours is very much a low-budget operation," explains Michael Ventresca, an aide of Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III, who is helping quarterback the Kennedy-for-President operation in Connecticut.

Unlike its Republican counterpart, the March 25 Democratic ballot is less cluttered with candidate names. Senator Kennedy and President Carter are listed one and two, followed by Lyndon LaRouche and California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. Neither of the latter has campaigned much in the state, and neither has a visible campaign organization here.

While voters cannot write in the name of anyone not listed on their ballots, they can vote "uncommitted."

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