Sen. Edward M. Kennedy now is relying on a "Carter collapse" to revivify his campaign. He insists that he can stay in the presidential race long enough for that to happen, no matter what occurs in the New York primary and beyond.
Above all, the senator wants to be "around" if President Carter becomes politically vulnerable again.
He fears that if he leaves the scene he might open the door for someone else -- maybe California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. -- to pick up the pieces if the President later on comes apart politically.
This assessment of Senator Kennedy's thinking is not speculation. Some of it came from the senator himself as he discussed his campaign with reporters at his Potomac home a few days ago. And some comes from top Kennedy aides.
However, there are some Kennedy associates who say this year's race for the Democratic presidential nomination is "all over" and that it is time for the senator to "bow out gracefully." One longtime adviser of the Kennedys, including the senator, said this to the Monitor the day after the Illinois primary.
"If Ted wants to have any chance of running for president at some later time, " this Kennedy intimate said, "he must find a way to bridge the gap he's opened between himself and the President. Otherwise, he will find that a lot of Democrats who back Carter will never in the future be willing to support a Kennedy candidacy."
There is growing evidence that among the senator's own people there is a rising sentiment in favor of Kennedy throwing in the towel -- soon and gracefully.
However, there is clearly a sizable segment of Kennedy supporters who want him to continue on to the bitter end, simply because they have become unalterably, even hotly, opposed to the President and his programs.
The "bitter enders" believe deeply that Senator Kennedy is leading a liberal cause which must be pursued to keep President Carter from turning the party, perhaps for a long time to come, in a conservative direction.
Thus, as the March 25 New York primary nears, the senator's future remains murky.
Should Mr. Kennedy win in New York, his desire to stay on despite tremendous odds obviously would be reinforced.
The senator is getting advice now from some old Kennedy hands that if he loses in New York -- even if the loss is a close one -- he should make drop out.
"There comes a moment when Ted can no longer get out of this gracefully," A Kennedy backer said. "I think that moment is nearing. And he's much better off doing it after looking good in a major primary -- like New York." He continued:
"Now, if Kennedy begins to string this out, losing again in caucuses and primaries -- well, it won't be long before he begins to look like a spoiler. Then when he leaves, he's bound to leave a bad taste.
"And then he'll always be remembered by many Democrats as the man who stirred up dissension in the party, the man who made if difficult for Carter to beat the Republicans in the fall."