What Kennedy really is up to

Presidential candidates are dropping fast. Now it is Jerry Brown. Earlier John Connally said he had enough. Then there's been Bob Dole and Philip Crane. This leaves the "hopers" -- George Bush, John Anderson, and Ted Kennedy.

Pennsylvania or other primaries coming soon thereafter may persuade Bush and Anderson to give up their quest. But Senator Kennedy continues to say that no matter what happens he intends to push his candidacy right into the convention.

Thus, it is the Kennedy to-the-bitter-end persistence that has become a prime subject of speculation among political observers here in Washington.

One theory put forward is that Kennedy really believes he can catch the President. He is, indeed, quite convincing when he presents a scenario in which there is a Carter campaign collapse with Kennedy being there to pick up the pieces.

But the senator must know that with each new primary the prospects for his coming from behind are becoming increasingly faint. Right now, for example, Kennedy would have to win almost impossible victories if his dream would come true -- about 62 percent of the vote.

Additionally, Kennedy's own projection shows his task is even greater than that: The Kennedy people disclose they now must win about 70 percent of the vote in the big state, big delegate primaries that remain if they are going to be able to turn the tide.

Kennedy aides also portray a convention where they are able to pry away delegates from Carter. They say that the President's standing in the polls will be so low by summer -- and his chances of being re-elected so dismal -- that a delegate stampede toward Kennedy will take place.

But much of this is wishful thinking. And Kennedy people will, privately, concede that this is so.

They are fully aware that Ronald Reagan's challenge of President Ford came within an eyelash of succeeding but that, when it fell short, there wasn't even any talk at the GOP convention that Reagan might be able to take delegates away from the President.

Ford was way down in the polls then -- damaged in large part by losing to many primaries to Reagan. Also the polls showed him some 25 to 30 points behind Carter.

The stage would have been just right for a move of Ford delegates to Reagan. Furthermore, it is easier for Republican delegates to come unglued from commitments than it is for Democratic delegates.

But it didn't happen. In fact, Ford as President held a distinct advantage in the struggle with Reagan for the uncommitted delegates that took place just before the convention. Ford was able to bring these delegates into the White House where the sales talk is mighty persuasive. Carter would have that advantage, too, if he needed uncommitted delegates to win.

Kennedy has to know all this -- that it will take a near-political miracle for him to win now.

So why will he stay in?

The answer that is gaining credence here is that the senator now sees his race, although a losing one, as setting the stage for a presidential run in 1984 .

The argument for this thesis is compelling:

1. Kennedy is learning how to put a national organization together. He feels that one reason he faltered so badly at first was because his organization was so slow in forming and becoming effective. So he now possesses the know-how and they key people to get off to a fast organizational start in 1984.

2. Kennedy believes he has the hard-core liberal element in the Democratic Party fully behind him now, particularly since his Georgetown University speech. From this support he thinks he will be in a position four years hence to reach out a bit and capture the more conservative elements of the party.

3. But more than anything else, Kennedy has come to look upon his current campaign as an exercise in expiation.

That is, he believes that by the time he goes through all the primaries the voters will get their fill of "punishing" him for his Chappaquiddick and related behavior -- and that they will be willing to give him a new assessment in 1984, one that will be wholly apart from judging him on what is being called the Kennedy character issue.

It is, of course, on this last count that Kennedy's planning may be unsound. Up to now anyway the voters have shown no indication they will let him "atone" for his past. Further, polls show that the more voters learn about Chappaquiddick (or are reminded of it through stories) the less likely they are to support the Massachusetts senator.

Thus, Kennedy would go into 1984 with an electorate well aware of Chappaquiddick -- because of the reminders they received this year -- and probably just as determined to deny him the presidency simply because they question whether he possesses the character -- and values -- they want in their president.

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