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Superman Crashes

If his name had been Edward Moore, as Eddie McCormack bitterly observed in 1962, his candidacy would have been a joke, "but nobody's laughing." And the situation has been much the same for all the 17 years since Edward Moore Kennedy, then only 29, beat McCormack for the right to fill the US Senate seat of his brother. President John Kennedy. And even though Edward Kennedy has had probably as much public attention for all these years as any political figure except the various presidents, nobody's really been looking and listening, either. The press, the polls, other politicians, and most of the people have come to believe that some irresistible force, some historical or genetic inevitability, was operating to make Kennedy a candidate for president.

The evidence suggests that Kennedy himself was of two minds about this supposed natural law of Kennedy ascendancy. He resisted strong pressures to run in 1972 and 1976, all the while saying that his time might come, but later. This time, too, he held back at first, saying he expected President Carter to serve two terms and pronouncing himself eager to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. If Kennedy was going to run for president, it looked as though he thought of 1984 as his year.

But he changed his mind. Why? Kennedy says it was because of a fundamental disagreement with President Carter on vital issues--energy, the economy, leadership of the country. These may have been what clinched his decision. But he would have to be on Mars not to be listening to the claque of press and politicians who shouted incessantly: this is going to be easy. The president's poll ratings were down near 20 percent, as low as any incumbent's have ever been. All the constituent groups of the Democratic party were mad at Carter. He hadn't done much right either in foreign or domestic policy. People were going to go into the primary voting booths and take out their frustrations about the inflation rate and energy prices by voting for anybody but Carter. If it isn't you, Teddy, the claque proclaimed, it will be Jerry Brown or some nobody, and he certainly will be beaten by a Republican. If so you can forget about 1984--and who knows what the situation will be like in 1988?

Kennedy's staff members all deny that this logic prevailed upon him. They loyally declare that the issues are what got their boss into the race, and that dedication to his positions on the issues will sustain him through the hard going ahead. But the press and the public had the idea that Carter was hopelessly weak, and they had the idea, too, that Kennedy couldn't be beat. Public opinion polls sustained those twin beliefs. In July, Gallup showed Kennedy's support among Democrats at 54 percent to Carter's 21 percent. Kennedy was far ahead of potential Republican challengers, while Carter was behind Reagan and Ford. Other polls showed Chappaquiddick was fading as a factor in people's minds. Louis Harris said 67 percent of the people thought Kennedy had the right leadership traits to be president, while 71 percent doubted Carter had enough competence for the job. A CBS-New York Times poll showed that 55 percent of the people thought Kennedy showed good judgment under pressure, while 40 percent felt that way about Carter.

Now Kennedy the presidential candidate is paying the price of being Edward Kennedy and not Edward Moore. Instead of being able to slog quietly around New Hampshire and Iowa and get his act together, like George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, or any mortal candidate, he is expected to leap out of a phone booth and soar. So that when he doesn't--when he stumbles, in fact--disappointed onlookers report that he has crashed. Kennedy hobbled the Roger Mudd interview on CBS, unable to articulate why he wanted to be president. He lost the Florida straw poll to Carter. He couldn't get his syntax straight or make eye contact in his early speeches. He seemed to lack fire, and made some of his listeners doubt whether he really wanted to be president after all. In San Francisco, responding to Ronald Reagan's inflammatory suggestion that the shah of Iran should get asylum in the United States, Kennedy let loose with an irrelevant and politically inept denunciation of the shah which overshadowed Reagan's original inept proposal.

For a campaign that was supposed to immediately attract Democrats in droves, the Kennedy effort has been weak in getting early endorsements from prominent party figures. In New York, for example. Governor Hugh Carey and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan are staying neutral, as are most state legislators and members of Congress. The Carter campaign, meanwhile, is cleaning up on mayors and other city officials, led by Edward Koch. Elsewhere, the most publicized endorsement to come to Kennedy--that of Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne--may be more trouble than it is worth. Byrne's heavy-handed efforts to dominate the Cook County Democratic organization have offended most of Chicago's party princelings, who are taking out their hostility by staying uncommitted in the presidential race or by flirting with Carter. They include Richard M. Daley, son of the late Richard J. and now, of all things, the darling of suburban good-government anti-bossists. Even in Congress, where grousing about Carter has been endemic, there has been no mad rush for Kennedy. Even standard liberals such as Representative Don Edwards of California are fence-sitting, apparently believing it will do them or their constituents no good to declare a choice. Everyone agrees that endorsements don't carry the weight they used to, but they do provide a signal of where politicians sense the wind is blowing. In most places, the politicians are acting as if they expect a ruinous storm.

Carter's political standing has been strengthened by the Iran crisis. The latest Gallup and Harris polls show a dramatic reversal in the Carter-Kennedy race. Among Democrats and independents, Harris has Carter ahead by two percentage points, and Gallup shows Carter leading among Democrats, 48 to 40.

Suddenly it has begun to dawn on people that this is going to be a rough-and-tumble race for the Democratic nomination, and that Edward Kennedy is not a political superman. But neither is he a stumblebum for not fulfilling overblown expectations. Kennedy's campaign managers are right: he has not made a slow start. Since October 30, the Kennedy campaign has gone from zero funds and no campaign organization to $2.5 million expected to be in hand by mid-December and a staff of 95 people in Washington and in 25 states around the country. Kennedy has been on the road practically non-stop since his announcement November 7. He has made three visits to Iowa, where the 1980 voting begins on January 16.

According to legend, there are well oiled Kennedy political machines lying hidden around the United States, ready to spring into action the minute the candidate announces. But the truth is that Kennedy had to put together an organization in a hurry, with emphasis on the early primary states. Carter has a formidable, well established campaign organization, which has the advantages of lavish use of federal perquisites and three years of pro-administration activity by the Democratic National Committee. DNC chairman John White makes no apologies about his preference for Carter. "Anybody who expects the chairman of the party to be neutral about an incumbent administration is awfully naive about politics," White says. "We aren't playing beanbag."

Political experts in Iowa sense that the start-from-scratch Kennedy organization is pulling about even with Carter's. Kennedy's secret weapon apparently is going to be the United Auto Workers, which will try to turn out its 40,000 members at the caucuses on Kennedy's behalf. Carter's strongest organizational backing comes from the Iowa State Education Association, which has 32,000 members, though about a third of these are Republicans. The Iowa result may also depend on the performances of Carter, Kennedy, and Jerry Brown in their televised debate January 7.

Beyond Iowa, if pro-Kennedy forces once thought they could bowl Carter over in state after state, they don't now. Kennedy managers have given up the idea, for example, of making an all-out effort to trounce the president in Florida and thereby inflict a knock-out punch close to his southern base. Instead, they will concentrate resources in urban counties, where Kennedy strength is likely to be greatest, in the hope of getting as many convention delegates as they can.

Kennedy probably will benefit from yet another reversal in the polls. Carter's upsurge is fueled by the Iran crisis and a patriotic rallying of the country around its leader. Even if Carter succeeds in getting the hostages out alive, and in an honorable way, public attention is bound to return to inflation, energy, and the president's overall performance as president. Even if his polls don't sink as far as his low standing this summer, they are bound to fall from their present level.

Hidden away in the latest ABC News-Harris survey, for example, are figures showing that, despite Iran, the public lacks underlying confidence in Carter. Sixty-five percent still feel Carter "does not inspire confidence as a president should," almost exactly the same percentage as before Iran. Seventy-one percent agree that though Carter is well-intentioned, "you begin to wonder if he has the basic competence to do the job."

But if Kennedy is going to capitalize on this basic dissatisfaction with Carter, he will have to perform better than he has. Various gaffes aside, Kennedy has failed to convey an overall vision of where he wants to take the country if he becomes president. His specific policy differences with Carter are plain. He's against decontrol of energy and in favor of federal subsidies for conservation. He's for more jawboning to control inflation, instead of restrictive monetary policy. He wants a more generous health care program and a bigger federal jobs program than Carter thinks the country can afford. But he is not tying it all together yet. Some aides are recommending a "Four E's" campaign--based on the issues of energy, economics, effectiveness, and equity--but that is not the stuff to move people's souls. Not that Carter's come up with anything better.

The opening days of the 1980 campaign have served a useful purpose. They have deflated the country's image of Edward Kennedy. He is walking on the ground, now, where we all can take a close look at him. If he is the better man, he'll have to prove it.