Dump Carter try: all smoke, no fire? President has votes to win any convention floor fight; opponent lack alternative candidate to rally round
Washington — Even as suspense builds over efforts to "open" the Democratic National Convention and deny Jimmy Carter the nomination, the most realistic expectations in Washington are that any "dump Carter" effort will prove as much a chimera as the Republican attempt to enlist Gerald Ford as vice-president in detroit.
Nonetheless, euphoria built at the GOP convention over a "dream" Reagan-Ford ticket in Detroit, whipped up by TV coverage. And Carter Democrats fear an unsightly spectacle of Carter-Mondale disapproval at the party's Aug. 11-14 convention in New York.
The vehicle for denying Mr. Carter the nomination -- talked of openly by the Kennedy forces since early March -- is to release delegates from first-ballot ties to any cnadidate, with an early rules vote at the convention. In effect, the results of five months of primaries and caucuses would be set aside and delegates would decide on a presidential candidate anew.
The call for an open convention by congressional Democrats in recent days follows an orchestration anticipated for several months by Kennedy strategists as part of a convention "dynamic" that could keep Mr. Carter from renomination.
But while not denying the poteltial for convention drama, neutral observers here still find Mr. Carter the likely nomination winner, until events prove otherwise.
First, they say, the congressional Democrats might not be in as much re-election peril as they claim, even with a Carter-led ticket. Despite polls suggesting Republicans now ahead of Democrats for congressional seats, most Congress-watchers still put the number of seats likely to change hands at 20 to 25 -- possibly as many as 30.
This is modest compared with previous big-shift years. The Democrats gained almost 40 seats in 1964 and 50 seats in 1958. The Republicans gained 56 seats in 1946. And, despite the McGovern debacle in 1972, the Democrats lost only a few seats.
Polls have proved "notoriously" wrong in the past in predicting congressional outcomes, says Everett Ladd, director of opinion research studies at the University of Connecticut.
Second, Mr. Carter has the votes to win a floor rules fight, point out neutral elections experts like Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute. Because convention delegates traditionally vote on rules questions along partisan candidate lines, Mr. Carter's 2-to-1 delegate lead is expected to hold up on the convention floor. "Personally, I'd like to see it happen," Mr. Ranney says. "But the chance to produce an open convention in August is virtually nil."
"The larger trend in presidential politics is to make conventions -- like the Electoral College -- a rubber stamp for the primaries," he says. "Opening the convention would be seen by most people as a ploy."
Third, weakening its chances, the "dump Carter" effort has as yet no single alternative candidate to coalesce around. Mr. Kennedy is discounted by many leaders of the open convention effort. The Massachusetts senator was a clear lose to Carter and carries negatives of hiw own. Mr. Kennedy still is regarded as the most likely benefactor of a dump Carter effort, if only because it suggests a broader dissatisfaction with the incumbent and may make Mr. Kennedy look less like a spoiler.
Mid-August will be too late to start building up a new candidate, observers here say. Tested alternative candidates, like Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall, all beart the baggage of prior presidential primary defeats. Vice-President Walter Mondale could step forward if Carter stepped aside -- which is regarded as wholly out of character for the Georgian -- but he would still be vulnerable for the Carter record the insurgent Democrats say they want to escape.
Some observers here see the shadow of independent-Republican John Anderson behind some of the efforts to open the Democratic convention. Gov. Hugh Carey of New York may be preparing to join an Anderson ticket lateR, claiming the Democratic convention had closed the door to a free Democratic choice. Also, Senate Democrats like Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, up for re-election in states where Mr. Anderson will help draw out crucial independent voters, want to distance themselves from the anticipated Carter-Mondale ticket.
The weakening of the two major parties in recent years may be the most important factor behind the recent GOP and prospective Democratic convention spectacles, suggests Mr. Ladd.
"When parties are as weak as they are, you get this kind of public thrashing about," he says. congressmen supposedly leading the open convention effort have made themselves independent of presidential coattails with campaign-finance laws and public funding that favor the incumbent.Also, Democratic Party reforms have sought to bypass party leaders and tie nominations to grass-roots voting.
"This national political every-man-for-himself produces bizarre responses, a public acting out before the national press," Mr. Ladd says. "You get a different, more realistic pattern of behavior in institutions when people know they are actually running things."