The unexpected Kennedy victories in New York and Connecticut dramatize a basic question for voters in the remaining Democratic primaries -- and for candidate Carter.
For voters the question is how much weight they should place on Kennedy's Chappaquiddick liability in relation to foreign and domestic issues.
For Carter the question is how much the Chappaquiddick factor can continue to be relied on to keep Kennedy down no matter what the issues.
The question demands from voters individual conscientious decisionmaking of a rare sort. Campaign reporters have found voter reaction ranging from a sense of Chappaquiddick as sufficient in itself for a vote against Kennedy, whoever his opponent, to Chappaquiddick as a personal ordeal from which Kennedy has emerged over the years as the stronger for it.
As for Carter and his campaign aides, they would be wise to reconsider their strategy against Kennedy, though spokesman Jody Powell says they will not do so. New York and Connecticut are pertinent, because they show that considerable numbers of voters outside of Kennedy's home state have already been moved to subordinate Chappaquiddick to other reasons for making up their minds.
These reasons may not travel to other states to the degree they apparently operated in New York, where the Kennedy victory was a landslide of some 60 percent. Among them was dissatisfaction with the President's performance on the United Nations vote against Israeli settlements, which still stands though he disavowed it. The concentration of Jewish voters in New York is particularly high. Though the administration's mishandling of the UN episode was notable, the voters in other primaries will not necessarily punish Carter for a stand against the settlements which reflects a basic US policy welcomed all over the world.
Another reason overriding Chappaquiddick for Kennedy voters was seen to be the state of the economy and the Carter inflation- fighting package with its expected financial harm to big cities including New York. This again may not be as large a factor in other parts of the country. But it suggests political pitfalls in the Carter tactic of saying he would balance the budget without disclosing his specific cuts before these primaries.
The New York and Connecticut upsets are a signal to Carter that neither Chappaquiddick nor the foreign problems of Iran and Afghanistan are sufficient to insulate him from what is going on out on the hustings. It is not enough for Mrs. Carter to tell crowds that she has checked with the President on the country's problems and he says not to worry. It is not enough for the President to call people to Washington to see him. He needs to go out and see people -- not just to talk to them but to listen to them.
As the hostage captivity drags on, the public would forgive the President for modifying his pledge not to campaign while they are held. He is campaigning anyway behind the scenes. And now Kennedy's effort to lure him out has received a push. The nation is seeing happy warrior Kennedy mingling with the people. He is pointedly noting that "you can't feel the human dimension of the rates of inflation and interest rates unless you're out talking to people." Carter needs similar political images, as he knew so well in 1976.
Here again New York may be different. There remain pockets of Democratic liberalism there, responsive to a Kennedy appeal against "Republican" Carter. In any case, Carter cannot assume that Chappaquiddick will continue to blunt to drawing of issues between him and Kennedy as much as it has.