What's holding Kennedy back?

`KENNEDY-watching'' is an old Washington game. It goes on notwithstanding Sen. Edward Kennedy's apparent disinclination to carry the torch. He took himself out of the running for the presidency in 1988 a number of months ago - again ``apparently.'' Nothing should be considered absolutely, positively final when it comes to Mr. Kennedy and his decisions on runinng for the highest office.

It was really ``atmospherics'' that caused him to bow out for 1988. Some top economists he polled predicted that the economy would be rolling along quite well at the time of the '88 election.

From this Kennedy concluded the economic climate wasn't favorable for his candidacy, particularly following such a popular Republican President. He stepped out of contention early. That brought sighs of relief from all the other Democratic aspirants. They know it would be well nigh impossible to keep Kennedy from the nomination if he set out to win it.

Well, much of the climate that shaped his no-run decision a year or more ago has changed. Certainly he would be able to criticize the Republicans for the growing budget and trade deficits.

What has turned around - suddenly and most visibly - is the political climate surrounding President Reagan. He remains personally popular. But the Iran-contra affair has dragged down his presidency, which had taken on something of a ``Camelot'' glow.

Democratic opponents say the Reagan administration has now soured, irrevocably and permanently. There may be much wishful thinking in this. But Reagan is no longer Superman. A Democrat, or for that matter a Republican, can now think of taking on Reagan and his administration without risking the ire of voters.

So Kennedy may just change his mind and run.

He has said his family was no longer an obstacle to his running - that his children were no longer asking him to stay out of the race. So one could well imagine Kennedy's sitting in his office these days, weighing a possible ``last hurrah'' run for the White House.

Kennedy, for years a power in the Senate, now becomes even more influential as he takes over the Labor and Human Resources Committee. As chairman, he will be a leading Democratic spokesman on education and job programs. In such an important role, he is bound to get a lot of visibility.

But one is forced to wonder whether Kennedy, if he were choosing his committee chair now rather than a few weeks ago, might not have chosen to head the Judiciary Committee instead. That panel is headed toward preventing the President from appointing additional conservatives to the federal judiciary. Kennedy may have wanted to avoid that public confrontation when the President was riding high. But today he might see it as an opportunity to joust with Reagan. He can now vigorously disagree with the President without incurring an almost knee-jerk negative reaction from the public.

The big question is this: What could be holding Kennedy back? Of course, he would not have to make a decision as soon as other Democratic contenders. He has but to say the word and powerful Kennedy operatives all around the country would jump in behind him. Or, at least, that's the way it used to be.

Such rallying from Kennedy loyalists, however, may not be as automatic as it once was. Many Democrats who supported both John and Bobby are not so excited about having Teddy in the presidency. Still, there are a lot of Kennedy people out there, ready to bring about the ``restoration.'' Ted can count on that. So he has some time left to make his decision.

Kennedy insiders are saying that what holds him back these days is simply that he's ``enjoying life too much.'' He really enjoys being a senator and, certainly, his constituents for the most part say he's a good one.

But he has to be aware that 1988 might be his last chance. The next time around he would be unlikely to challenge another incumbent Democrat as he did President Carter.

Thus, should another Democrat be elected in '88, then seek reelection, it would be 1996 before Kennedy made another try for the White House. By that time, the Kennedy magic might have faded away. Other charismatic Democrats might be on center stage, not easily shoved aside.

So he just might change his mind and run in 1988.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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