With just three weeks to go, the Kennedy campaign is pressing on to the June 3 finale, undeterred by Tuesday's twin losses in Nebraska and Maryland to President Carter.
But June 3, when the final one-fifth of convention delegates are chosen, will be the last stand for the Kennedy forces.
"If President Carter wins the 'big three' on June 3 -- California, New Jersey , and Ohio -- he'll be the candidate," says Richard Stearns, chief delegate strategist for the Kennedy campaign. "We'll do our best to elect him."
However, Mr. Stearns still thinks Senator Kennedy will win at least two of the three closing primaries, California and New Jersey. Ohio's contest is extremely close, he says, a point confirmed by neutral political observers there.
"There's a point in politics when you lose," Mr. Stearns says. "If Carter wins on June 3, he's won, with his delegate lead. If Kennedy wins, there's at least a political argument which the convention will have to decide."
That political argument is whether Mr. Carter could beat Ronald Reagan in the fall, the Kennedy people say. "The pressure to change [from President Carter to another candidate] would have to come basically from Carter delegates," Mr. Stearns says. And he concedes Senator Kennedy "may not necessarily be the beneficiary of a growing dissatisfaction with Carter" -- leaving open the door for a non-Carter, non-Kennedy choice at the convention.
President Carter would lose an election held now against Ronald Reagan, the Kennedy camp says. "West of the Mississippi, Carter could carry maybe Hawaii," says Mr. Stearns. "I doubt he could carry Texas today, where 20 percent voted "no preference" in the spring Democratic primary.
"In the South, Carter would carry Georgia, Alabama, maybe the Carolinas, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky. Reagan would carry Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee.
"In the Midwest, our polls show Carter could not carry Illinois and Wisconsin. He'd carry Minnesota and Michigan.
"In New England, he'd carry Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He'd lose Connecticut. He'd carry Delaware and Maryland.
"The election then would come down to four states. Carter would lose Ohio, maybe take New York and Pennsylvania, and lose New Jersey. Carter would have 210 or 220 electoral votes, 50 short of victory. Throw in a state like New Jersey, and he'd still lose."
Strategist Stearns says if Senator Kennedy can add California, New Jersey, and Ohio to his New York and Pennsylvania primary wins, he would at least stand "a fair chance" of gaining a second-ballot victory at the convention.
"On a worst-case basis, we'd go to the convention with 1,200 or 1,300 delegates," Mr. Stearns estimates, with Senator Kennedy taking 100 more delegates before June 3 and capturing 400 of the 696 to be decided the last day. There would be 200 uncommitted, or 1,500 non-Carter delegates in all, compared with 1,800 Carter delegates. At least 1,666 delegates are needed to win the nomination.
A Carter misstep, independent candidate John B. Anderson's prospects, and the apparent feeling of many Democratic congressmen that Mr. Carter would be "a drag on the ticket" are other factors the convention in August might have to consider , Mr. Stearns says.
"How Kennedy does June 3, that's what the party will be looking at," he concludes. "Kennedy has run an impressive race. Going into the convention, he will have won 15 to 17 states, including most of the large Democratic states.
"There's a collapsing sense of national interest in the campaign, reflecting the boredom of the press," Mr. Stearns finds.
"The press, especially TV, finds it enormously difficult to cover issues in a campaign. They find the combative element, like the delegate count, more interesting.
"The press has had only one candidate -- Kennedy -- to deal with."
But if Senator Kennedy wins in Oregon's primary next week and finishes strong on June 3, "there'll be some excitement left," Mr. Stearns says.