'Billygate' stands in way of comeback for President

President Carter has been made the issue by the Billy Carter affair -- and even his own top aides now are conceding privately that it may cost him the election.

Up until the last few days the hope within the White House was that a Carter comeback could be launched at the Democratic convention in early August.

But now this hope is dimming. "Look," one White House aide lamented, "that Senate inquiry into Billy and the President now is set to go on until at least Oct. 4.

"That means it will be almost impossible to shift the focus on Reagan and away from the President and his problems during half of the fall campaign."

Meanwhile, with the President's political stock plunging, the momentum for opening up the convention and finding an alternative is building.

In an interview with the Monitor, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland, one of the spokesmen for the new congressional move to displace Carter and put someone else -- perhaps Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, Vice-President Walter F. Mondale, or Sen. Henry M. Jackson -- in his place, had this to say:

"We had about 50 Democratic congressmen at our meeting last week. When we meet again on Monday, I would expect there will be at least 100 there." The movement, Congressman Barnes says, is not a Kennedy-instigated effort. (The White House claims otherwise.)

"We don't want Kennedy or Carter," he said. "We want an alternative we think could win in November." Mr. Barnes prefers Secretary Muskie.

Washington reporters are hearing from Democratic leaders all over the United States -- in office or out, and usually in private -- who say they would really prefer to have Carter step aside or be forced to step aside.

This growing anxiety -- "call it fear," one congressman says -- is that the President will not only lose badly but will bring about the defeat of a lot of Democrats in marginal seats and possibly elect a GOP-controlled House and Senate.

There is little evidence as yet that the President has lost control of the convention, where of the 3,311 delegates, 1,971 are pledged to him -- over 300 more than he needs to win the nomination.

Yet it seems certain that an effort to change the rules -- in effect, to unpledge all the delegates and start anew -- will be given a tremendous push.

Thus the convention promises at the convention, under these circumstances, may not undo the damage to his candidacy caused by a strong challenge to his nomination -- strong enough to make it clear that he is leading a badly divided party.

A Carter who is pushed aside might well decide to withhold his personal support from the nominee -- whether it is Senator Kennedy or someone else.

United Press International reports:

Attorney, General Benjamin Civiletti faced a storm of inquiries over the weekend for his stunning disclosure that he talked with the President last month about the Billy Carter case.

Some insiders questioned whether the attorney general could survive the worst gaffe of his career -- his brief chat about the matter with the President and his flat denials for two weeks that any such conversation occurred.

The Justice Department's watchdog unit has prepared to start an "intensive and all- encomapassing" investigation into whether Mr. Civiletti's Oval Office exchange with the President might have amounted to an obstruction of justice.

Presidential press secretary Jody Powell said in response to inquiries at a White House news briefing that Civiletti had not offered to resign in the wake of the disclosure of his discussion with Carter.

Civiletti said he had not previously considered the 30-second chat "a discussion." He said he simply told the President his brother was "foolish" for not registering as a Libyan agent and probably could avoid criminal prosecution if he did so.

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