Quite early one morning last week, a familiar figure in a sober business suit stepped from the door of his home on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Blinking for a moment in the bright sunlight, he slid into the passenger seat of a blue 1971 Oldsmobile convertible and headed for the United States Senate. As the car inched through Washington's rush-hour traffic, he asked the driver to put the top down. Suddenly a construction worker at the side of the road caught sight of his curly dark hair and Boston Irish jaw. "Hey, Mister President?" the man yelled, and when everyone started waving, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy broke into a grin as broad as Back Bay. Turning to the reporter in the back seat, he asked cheerfully, "Have you got that down?"
No one missed the message. After more than a year of diplomatic evasion and political feinting, Teddy Kennedy laid down an unmistakable challenge to Jimmy Carter last week. Dropping his longstanding endorsement of the President, Kennedy announced that he was no longer ruling out the possibility of a race of his own in 1980, especially if the economy continued to sour. Kennedy's warning fell short of a formal declaration of candidacy, but it was enough to energize the twenty or so "draft Kennedy" movements around the couhtry and quicken the pulse of Democratic Party leaders (page 34). Few doubted that he would declare, perhaps by Thanksgiving, in plenty of time to enter all the primaries. "Ted has changed his status from an unannounced candidate with a small option to run into an unannounced candidate with an option not to run," said Democratic National Committee chairman John White. "It's a hell of a change."
It was also a high-stakes gesture of lese majesty from the last of the Kennedy brothers. Heir to all the magic of the family name and ahead of Carter 2 to 1 in the polls, Kennedy could reduce the President to a lame duck by spring. Carter loyalists charged that Teddy's new course would divide Democrats and deliver the 1980 election to the Republi-cans. Kennedy and his people countered that the failing economy was a more immediate danger and that Carter's own vulnerability would hand the Senate as well as the White House to the GOP in 1980. An AP-NBC poll last week gave Carter the lowest job rating of any President in 30 years, while an ABC-Louis Harris poll indicated that seven in ten Americans believe he could not win re-election.
In private, a few Democratic pros even hoped wistfully that Carter might withdraw before 1980 —a notion that was quickly dismissed at the White House. Instead, the line that Kennedy had drawn in the dust seemed to infuse the President's Georgians with a feisty new determination. Among themselves, Carter strategists ar-gued optimistically that the old romance of Camelot would play badly in the harsh climate of the 1980s, that Kennedy's image as a big-spending liberal would not square with the country's conservative temper and that a well-organized march through the 30-plus primary states would defeat him. "There's mythology that Kennedys don't lose," said one senior staffer. "We're going to shoot that down mighty fast."
The shots are already ringing, and a passionate, typically boisterous Democratic primary campaign seems about to burst on the nation. California's Gov. Jerry Brown, campaigning in New Hampshire last week, is rapidly positioning himself to challenge both the President and Kennedy. In Washington, the Carter-Mondale campaign team has moved into a six-story headquarters and looked to its game plans. And around the country the draft-Kennedy groups have begun thumping the drum more ebulliently than ever for Teddy. "People didn't believe he was a candidate," said Sergio Bendixen, a Kennedy insurgent in Florida, where Kennedy and Carter will square off for the first time in a nonbinding party causus on the weekend of Oct. 13. "That problem has been more than solved."
Kennedy's march to the brink of insurgency has been building for months. In December, he electrified delegates to the Democratic mini-convention in Memphis, urging them to "sail against the wind" of conservatism and back to their proper moorings in the New Deal. For a time he seemed content to fill the vacuum left by Sen. Hubert Humphrey as the party's liberal gadfly, opposing Carter openly and often on such matters as national health insurance and energy policy. Each small break with the President touched off frantic WHAT'S TED UP TO? headlines in the papers and considerable head-scratching around the White House. But until last week, Kennedy clung to what his staffers came to call the "expect-expect-intend" endorsement of Carter: "I expect the President to be renominated, I expect him to be re-elected—and I intend to support him."
Those expectations, however, were always a bit contingent. "Teddy doesn't want to be President; he just doesn't want anybody else to be President," chuckles Sen. John C. Culver of Iowa, an old friend. Privately, Kennedy aides predicted last spring that the state of the economy would determine the state of Kennedy's resolve about taking on an incumbent President. In July, Kennedy invited five liberal economists—Walter Heller, Arthur Okun, George Perry, Joseph Pechman and Alice Rivlin—to dinner at his home in McLean, Va. The economists predicted that unemployment would rise higher and the impending recession cut deeper than the White House was letting on. The strongest nudge came in late July when polls showed that either Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford might beat Carter one-on-one.
When Congress adjourned for the August recess, Kennedy withdrew to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., to think things through. Five years earlier he had removed himself from the 1976 race to minister to agonizing family concerns: thirteen children of his brothers John and Bob; his wife Joan's drinking problem and the cartilage cancer of his son, Teddy Jr. This time, Kennedy spent days sailing up to Maine with Joan on his 55-foot yacht, the Curragh.He escorted her on a mediagenic date to the RFK Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament in Forest Hills as well. In Boston last week, friends said that while the couple still maintained a long-distance marriage, Joan seemed trimmer and more at peace. "I've never seen her look so good," said one old friend. "I would say she's excellent—she takes each day as it comes."
Each day also brought increasing political pressures on Kennedy. In early August, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Hugh Carey of New York pressed him to declare his intentions before Thanksgiving so Carey could keep the New York delegation from fraying come convention time. In Massachusetts, where other pols were not bound by Kennedy's expect-expect-intend diplomacy, a local poll showed that Brown could defeat Carter in the state's primary, and freshman Sen. Paul Tsongas began angling toward a favorite-son race as Kennedy's stand-in. In Washington, Senate colleagues underscored the danger of a Carter debacle to the chamber's Democratic majority. "I was just curious how you're going to deal with Strom Thurmond when you have to call him 'Mister Chairman'," Sen. John Durkin of New Hampshire joked one day—a reference to the South Carolina Republican who is ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee that Kennedy himself now heads. Kennedy, working over a speech at the rear of the Senate chamber, grinned and groaned, "Get out of here."
Some Kennedy confidants advised that his wisest course was to wait until it was clear Carter couldn't win. Then Kennedy could jump in, not as spoiler but as savior. Others counseled quicker action, arguing that the draft-Kennedy movement could not hold our forever without a signal of hope from the senator. To one prestigious Democrat who advised him to stay out of the race altogether, the senator said bluntly: "Thanks, but my father always said, 'If it's on the table, eat it'."
Kennedy gradually came to conclude that his longest-range option—delaying long enough to al-low Carter to stumble in New Hampshire—would force him to miss a quarter of the primaries and that a signal of some sort was in order. He got the chance on returning to Washington, where he was greeted with a report by columnist Joseph Kraft that the family factor still stood in the way of a Kennedy race. When The New York Times and the Daily News called to check the report, the Kennedy camp suddenly let it be known that Rose Kennedy, 89, no longer objected to a race and that Joan and the family had given their blessings, too. Seasoned Kennedyites doubted that the family had been much of an obstacle all along, but Kennedy's announcement was a clear signal.
The same day Kennedy had lunch at the White House with President Carter. For weeks, Carter strategists had been prodding the President to smoke out Kennedy's intentions and to make it clear, as Carter has vowed, that "I don't care if I go to the convention with just the Georgia delegation. I'm going." Over fish, buttered carrots, lettuce and tomato salad, the two men chatted amiably with First Lady Rosalynn Carter about mental health, national health insurance and other domestic issues. When the Carters served up a dessert of rich cheesecake, Kennedy, who has slimmed down by 20 pounds and forswornice cream, begged off.
Then came a small moment of truth. When the dishes were cleared away, Rosalynn exclused herself and the two men adjourned to a small sitting room. Carter broached the subject of the 1980 campaign and asked Kennedy point-blank about his intentions. Kennedy hedged, saying that he was "reconsidering" his support. By one account, he reported that a number of Democratic colleagues, worried by their own vulnerability in 1980, were pressing him to run, that the state of the economy troubled him and that if the electorate didn't at least perceive an uptick in the economy soon, he might run. The exchange was polite. The President came away from it convinced that Kennedy would indeed challenge him. "It was a good meeting," he told his brain trust. "I'm glad I did it." But the President seemed "districted" later at a White House briefing on Soviet troops in Cuba. "He seemed completely preoccupied by worries other than the subject at hand," said one senator present.
Carter and Kennedy tried to keep the meeting quiet, and both denied rumors that Kennedy had tried to persuade Carter to withdraw from contention in 1980. But as the details of the meeting began to leak out last week, the vibrations were seismic. Carter people growled angrily that Kennedy was threatening the party. Kennedyites in the draft movement saw the signal they had been waiting for. And a war of political nerves began.
How much Kennedy's appeal would turn on glamour—or on simple nostalgia for the early '60s—and how much it would be affected by matters of greater substance remained to be seen. At a time of conservative drift, Kennedy remains a staunch liberal with a voting rating of 95 from both the Americans for Democratic Action and the American Federation of Labor's Committee on Political Education. He voted for the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill and for labor-law reform; he opposed natural-gas deregulation; he championed an expensive health-insurance program. He was against lifting economic sanctions against Rhodesia; he opposed the sale of $4.5 billion worth of jet fighters to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. He supported the Panama Canal treaties and is for SALT II.
Over the past year, however, Kennedy has also made a perceptible move toward the center. He retooled his expensive national health-insurance plan, bringing the private insurance industry into the program and dropping the Federal tab from an annual $200 billion to what he estimated at $30 billion. He encouraged deregulation of the airline industry and has been pushing to get Big Goverment out of the trucking industry. He has toyed with such probusiness economic ideas as stimulating investment by cutting corporate income taxes and offering faster depreciation on new plants and equipment. "He's Teddy Kennedy, but he has some Teddy Roosevelt in him," says James D. McKevitt of the National Federation of Independent Business. Even so, the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action awarded Kennedy only 4 points out of a possible 100 on his voting record.
Water and Milk
White House strategists argued that Kennedy's liberalism would make him unelectable in a national race. Chappaquiddick, they reckoned, might make him vulnerable even to John Connally, who has scandal problems of his own ("The water washes out the milk," needled one White Houseaide). And Carter's people predicted that when the first warm glow of Teddy'schallenge faded, Democrats would have to face up to a very cold fact: that a Kennedy candidacy could cost the party the South, which a Democrat needs to win election. "You're not talking about taking the nomination away from a sitting President," observed one senior staff man. "You're talking about delivering the White House to Ronald Reagan or John Connally."
Carter's men seemed eager for battle, confidently predicting that they could repeat their upset victory of 1976 against Kennedy or anyone else. If they were worried, they buried it in gallows humor. Bustling off to play a midday match on the White House tennis court, Jordan bumped into Congressional liaison deputy Robert Thomson in the lobby of the West Wing. "Bob, we're working on the President's withdrawal statement; I'll talk to you about it later," Jordan joshed. The President's image maker, Jerry Rafshoon, was so confident about Carter's chances for re-election that he made a novel wager with journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame: if Kennedy is the country's next President, Raf-shoon vowed, he would pull Woodward to the Inauguration in a rickshaw.
The suggestion that Carter might pull himself out of the race next year drew hoots from the President's men. Some guessed that Teddy was trying to bluff Carter into stepping down, leaving an open field for a Kennedy candidacy; they predicted that Kennedy himself would turn tail when the ploy failed. Others laughed at scenarios that foresaw delegations from Congress advising the President to fold his tent. "You just don't ask an incumbent President to step aside, barring something like a war or if he committed some notorious action," said one senior aide. "Anyone impertinent enough to make such a request would be politely but firmly shown the door."
The High Road
The President himself seemed to be bubbling with his "whip his ass" spirit of old. The First Lady was also ready for a fight. "She's glad the fray has been joined," chuckled one top aide. "You know how combative and competitive she is." Carter's immediate strategy was to hold to the Presidential high road for at least several more weeks before formally declaring the campaign season open. His plan was to run on his reputation for honesty, decency and tackling hard issues head-on. His image makers were already toying with the idea of replacing his 1976 campaign pitch ("Why not the best?") with a brand new slogan: "He's earned your trust."
That Carter was barely visible in the polls did not dismay the President's political agents, who pointed out that he had also started as all-but-invisible "Jimmy Who?" in 1976. "The same people who were bound and determined to write us off then are writing us off now," White House press secretary Jody Powell has said. "To hell with them." Carter strategists believe that changes in party rules that have transformed politics since the freewheeling Kennedy boiler-room campaigns of the 1960s would also work to Carter's advantage. "A national campaign is a series of arduous, nasty and very messy little contests in different states, and we understand that process," said one top planner. About 60 staffers are now at work at Carter's campaign headquarters in Washington. One hundred and six are out in the field. And fund raisers in twenty states hope to raise $5 million by Jan. 1. By this week, they had put $2.1 million in the President's campaign kitty.
That bank balance—twice what Gerald Ford had on the eve of the 1976 campaign—gave he President some fall-back power. His strategists expect difficulties in the Iowa caucuses and rough sledding in the snows of New Hampshire. They hope to offset Kennedy's strength in the New Hampshire primary with a strong showing in the Minnesota caucuses, which fall on the same day. Vice President Walter F. Mondale's fiercely loyal home folks are vital to this game plan.The President's agents concede that it would be damaging to lose the Florida primary after de-feats to Kennedy in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but they contend that they can survive a close defeat there. "We don't need to do what we did in '76 to stay alive," says one Carter aide. "Now if Carter only does so-so in Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, there's still a whole lot of strength in his incumbency."
The President was already exploiting the advantages of incumbency—leverage with friends and foes, instant media attention and the wings of Air Force One. He made a brief swing into Kennedy country last week, stopping in Hartford to unveil a $1.6 billion energy-crisis-assistance program that would use the proposed windfall-profits tax to help low-income people pay their fuel-oil bills; Carter also announced that he had sent jawboning telegrams to 27 oil companies urging them to freeze heating-oil prices over the next few months. But he had to use Kennedy's name five times in twenty minutes during a discussion of health-care matters with some senior citizens, and the way Kennedy was crowding into his life space was clearly beginning to irk him. Before the President went on the Steubenville, Ohio, a reporter cornered him to ask who he thought would win a Carter-Kennedy face-off.
"Nice day, isn't it," said Carter.
"You don't want to talk about it, sir?"
"How did you ever guess that?" the President replied.
Kennedy also posed a clear and present danger to Jerry Brown. "If Kennedy is in, Brown is out," said California state AFL-CIO chief John Henning. "His situation would be pretty good if it were just him and Carter, but with Kennedy in there, he'd better start thinking of running for the Senate in 1982." Brown didn't seem to be thinking anything of the sort; he still plans to turn his "exploratory" venture into a full-fledged campaign, probably by next month. "With Kennedy out and us taking on Carter one-on-one it was a dream campaign," said Brown political strategist Tom Quinn. "We've always assumed two scenarios; it now appears we'll be pursuing the more difficult of the two with Kennedy in."
The preliminary Brown scenario anticipates surviving losses to Kennedy and perhaps Carter in the early caucuses, the New England and Florida primaries, bouncing back with a victory on more neutral ground—perhaps Illinois—and finishing with a run of major victories in the Far West. Brown's image makers will seek to portray their man as hip, Kennedy as passe. "It will be Camelot against 'Star Wars'," predicts aide David Mixner. Brown is likely to attack Kennedy on the cost of national health insurance, taunt his silence on nuclear power and push for greater attention to jobs, inflation and post-industrial economic growth. This rightward-thinking pitch echoes that of Carter in some respects; but Brown people confidently predict that they will steal the President's thunder. "Our whole focus is on Kennedy," says Quinn. "Carter is terminal."
Brown's immediate problem was to sharpen his own soft focus. Trailed by three press buses, he barnstormed through New Hampshire last week, shaking hands and making thoughtful, practical points. He sounded his main themes: the perils of inflation, budget deficits and nuclear power. He talked up his idea for a North American Economic Community composed of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. He praised Carter for restraint in handling the Russians in Cuba, but attacked him for cutting off reconnaissance flights over the island—and for spending money on mobile mis-siles instead of rapid transit. "He's not a flake," insisted one favorably impressed state senator, Robert Fennelly—who acted as Jimmy Carter's state coordinator in 1976. "I'll tell you, if Ted Kennedy isn't in before Hanksgiving, this guy's got a real chance."
'HOPE TO GOODNESS'
But the Kennedy boom upstaged Brown and just about everyone else in New Hampshire last week. A table full of draft-Kennedy campaign bric-a-brac drew crowds at a political picnic in Hillsborough County, and the leader of the draft-Kennedy movement in the state, a prominent Democratic official named Dudley Dudley, reported that her phone was practically ringing off the hook with pledges of help and financial support. "I think we may have a real, live candidate by then," she mused cheerfully. But there was a discordant note at the picnic when Lillian Carter, the President's octogenarian mother, talked about the campaign. "As for Senator Kennedy," she said, "I believe him when he says he isn't running. If he does run, I hope to goodness nothing happens to him, I really do." The remark drew boos, though Miss Lillian said later that she meant no harm.
Show of Strength
The Kennedy draft movement was also on the upswing in Florida, where next month's nonbinding stateconvention caucuses are likely to generate the same kind of media attention that propelled Carter out of Iowa and into serious candidacy four years ago. By a complex, double-tiered selection process, 878 of the state's 1,717 convention delegates will be elected; the others will be appointed by state party officials, who have solidly backed Carter. Buoyed by the Kennedy challenge, draft-Teddyites predict they will win a majority of the elected delegates; they believe that such a show of strength might prompt pro-Carter party leaders to defect and name enough delegates to win a state-convention Presidential straw vote in November. "There's just no enthusiasm for Carter among those peole," says Florida state comptroller Gerald Lewis, the first ranking Florida Carterite to jump ship. "They say they are loyal—but it has no depth."
Carter remains the man to beat in Florida, but he is taking no chances on the contest. Last week, 200 prominent Floridians were invited to the White House for briefings on the "Achievements of the Carter Administration," and Florida state Rep. Carrie Meek was invited to join the official U.S. party at the funeral of Lord Mountbatten, an unusual honor for a local official. Carter took care to inspect hurricane damage in the state last week. "Florida is the only major piece of political action until the January Iowa caucuses," explains Carter state coordinator Jay Hakes. "It's going to be talked about for a long time."
The level of discourse was fast approaching a Presidential-year din. Some Democrats said the ambitions of Kennedy and Brown would turn the President into a de facto lame duck, hamstringing his ability to govern long before his term was up; others argued that he could scarcely be hobbled more seriously than he was already. Chairman White saw in Kennedy's challenge the makings of a "blood, mangling" mess for Democrats. But Kennedy saw a party badly split no matter what he did. In any event, Democrats have always liked gloves-off politics, and it seemed likely that the challenge to Carter would go right on heating up.