Might Carter drop out of the race?

To the growing speculation that the President mighgt renounce his candidacy for a second term, this reporter's quick reaction is to call it "nonsense." Yet those of us who are in the business of assessing political possibilities have learned -- usually by our mistakes -- not to summarily throw out such a prediction.

Thus on second thought I remember how on the very night when Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by disclosing he would not seek a second full term I and others were stating flatly on a panel TV show that President Johnson wouldn't do anything of the kind.

Fortunately for us, the show had been taped for showing after the Johnson speech, and the panelists were still around the TV studio. Thus we wiped out our embarrassment by doing the show over, this time live -- and, I might add, with our wisdom vastly improved.

I am also reminded of Robert Kennedy and his appearance before a breakfast meeting of reporters on Jan. 30, 1968, only a few days before he announced his decision to run for president. Kennedy spent the morning citing all the reasons why he would not be a candidate. Then, at the end, in response to a request for a summary of his position, he said, with definiteness, that his candidacy was "inconceivable."

But a few minutes later, Kennedy asked to amend this assessment. Thus, he ended up by saying the possibility of his running was not "inconceivable" but "unforeseeable."

So when Kennedy did make his move to seek the White House shortly thereafter, both he and his aides were able to say that he had not wholly closed the door to that possibility in his previous comments on the subject to the press.

That Kennedy episode seems relevant now. And we thus would put the Carter prospects of stepping aside in this way: It may be conceivable, but it is not foreseeable. And for these reasons:

More than anything else, one senses the President's conviction that he is fully up to and on top of his job. In fact, in answer to a question on this point at a recent press conference Mr. Carter indicated he had no doubts about his competency. He also said he was dealing with problems of unprecedented complexity and difficulty where success had to be measured in relative not absolute terms.

Further, the President is known to feel that he must have a second term in order to be able to carry his administration to a successful conclusion. In that time, Mr. Carter seems convinced he will be able to put the economy in order and move the nation toward peace. Specifically, he wants that time to achieve a Mideast peace settlement and to bring SALT II to completion.

Also, the President is not about to step aside and let Senator Kennedy become the candidate in his place. Jody Powell has made this clear -- and with a little colorful emphasis thrown in for good measure.

One bit of speculation now is that, if Mr. Carter loses a lot of the remaining primaries, particularly in places such as California, Ohio, and New Jersey, and if polls then show he will lose to Reagan in the fall, he will step aside and substitute his vice-president as the Democratic candidate.

This idea -- coming mainly from Kennedy backers -- is transparently a tricky one. How, one must ask, could Carter transfer his delegates to Mondale? Instead, the likelihood is that any move in that direction would merely open the door to securing the nomination for Kennedy.

Another proposal being vetted, this one from NEw York Governor Carey, is that both Carter and Kennedy release their delegates and provide for a completely open convention. But Bob Strauss quickly let it be known that the President wasn't interested in going that route.

Why, indeed, would the candidate who clearly is going to win the nomination want to release all his delegates so that the challenger might have another chance to overtake him? Carey, of course, is, privately, a backer of Kennedy.

So it is that with a caution born of experience one ends up saying that, while a projected Carter stepdown may not be "nonsense," it certainly doesn't seem "foreseeable."

Oh, pshaw! May we amend our prediction once again? We'd like to say that on further reflection we find the idea of Carter dropping our of the race comes very close to being "nonsense."

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