Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has achieved new hope for his presidential campaign -- but it appears to be a forlorn one. With nearly half the 1980 presidential primaries over, he is fast running out of time for a comeback.
The President, while faltering, still is way out in front in the race convention delegates.
And despite an apparent narrow popular vote win by Mr. Kennedy in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, on balance the President gained the most out of the April 22 battle for delegates.
Counting caucus results in Missouri and Vermont, as well as the Pennsylvania primary, Mr. Carter appears to have accumulated a net gain of 45 delegates over Senator Kennedy. United Press International's totals show Mr. Carter with 1,115 delegate votes to 596.5 for Senator Kennedy (1,666 are needed to nominate at the July Democratic convention).
More significantly, there were no signs at all of the Carter collapse which Mr. Kennedy and his forces are counting on if they are to overtake the President.
The Kennedy gain from Pennsylvania comes down to this: His campaign stayed alive. A loss, even by a few votes, would have made it clear, even to the senator, that continuing would have been fruitless and mean-spirited.
But the virtual tie with the President in the Pennsylvania popular vote does not give Mr. Kennedy the momentum he needs to turn the campaign around.
He may, indeed, be able to continue to profit from the protest vote against Carter and his handling of the economy.
Thus, he may be able to score some more wins -- say in Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and California.
But there is no expectation -- as veteran political observers now see it -- that Mr. Kennedy can possibly roll up the massive margins he needs in the big industrial-state primaries that remain.
One distinct bright spot for Senator Kennedy was his fine showing among blacks in Pennsylvania. Some polling showed him with a 2-to-1 margin over Mr. Carter among blacks in the voting there.
In previous primaries Mr. Carter had won the black vote against Mr. Kennedy, or at least broken even.
But the pervasive negative element in Mr. Kennedy's Pennsylvania performance was that, among those polled after casting their ballots Tuesday, a large segment of those who voted for the senator said they didn't trust him and were only supporting him because they were dissatisfied with the President and were using their vote to send a message to Mr. Carter.
Some voters were telling reporters, too, that they would not be voting for Mr. Kennedy if they thought he had a chance of winning the nomination.
In other words, their preference was President Carter -- but they thought it was safe for them to use a vote for Kennedy to express their displeasure with the President's handling of the economy, particularly with his inability to hold down soaring inflation.
Now the Democratic primary campaign will move to terrain where Mr. Carter should do quite well. On May 6 there are primaries in Indiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- states where recent polling showed the President out in front of Mr. Kennedy.
The senator is leading Mr. Carter in the District of Columbia primary, also set for May 6.
Then on May 13 the Maryland and Nebraska primaries will take place. Once again, Democrats in both of these contests are considered to be leaning toward Mr. Carter.
One obvious interpretation of the Pennsylvania outcome is that the President is losing ground among the electorate. But if he is, he will have to do much worse than he did in Pennsylvania for Mr. Kennedy is to find a road back.
That is, the senator must very soon now start walloping the President by getting votes of some 70 percent or more in these primaries.
There is no other way that Mr. Kennedy can catch the President -- or even get close enough to mount the kind of dog-eat-dog bid for Carter delegates at the convention that the senator and his aides have been talking about of late.