For months, the District's two unofficial Teddy Kennedy for President committees were getting telephone calls from all over the country. Scores of Teddy-lovers were funneled to them by Ma Bell's directory assistance clerks. The D.C. Kennedy for President Committtee and the D.C. Committee for a Democratic Alternative were the only Teddy for President clubs in the nation's capital.
Those were heady days, but now the jig is up.
Kennedy is officially out of the closet as a candidate for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. His own committees are falling into place. And Kennedy's local presence in Washington has suddenly shrunk to a dimension roughly equivalent to the number of delegates that the District will send to the Democratic National Convention next year -- 19 out of 3,331.
While Kennedy planners are busy formulating strategies for other campaigns, the May 6 primary in Washington is just another date a long way down the road.
"We haven't really forcused on the D.C. campaign yet," Mike Feldman, a Washington lawyer and adviser to Kennedy, said earlier this week. "I could swear that no one has even considered the District of Columbia primary, yet."
It is not a slight on Kennedy's part. It is merely a recognition of reality and a matter of timing.
Oddly enough, the District has the same number of votes at the party's nominating convention as New Hampshire, whose February primary is usually the first showdown for candidates seeking party nominations, the first indication of who's got it and who doesn't.
There the similarities end. There are 13 other primaries before the District's. By the time District Democrats cast their ballots, the fate of the party nomination could be all but decided.
In past election years, there were fewer presidential primaries, and the District's was often considered a key one, according to lawyer Joseph Rauh, a Kennedy supporter long active in city Democratic politics. "The vote in Washington has been most important for its being a bellweather of the black position," Rauh said.
In 1952, W. Averell Harriman showed he was a favorite among blacks by defeating Estes Kefauver in the June 17 primary. In 1960, Hubert H. Humphrey established himself as the pro-civil rights candidate by winning in the District. (Rauh said John F. Kennedy didn't bother to enter that race.) And in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy showed he was the choice among blacks by defeating Humphrey in this city's Democratic contest.
By the time Washington speaks in next year's elections, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia -- all places with good-sized black populations -- will already have had their respective says.
" if everybody's going to know before than, it would not be of significance," Rauh conceded.
But the effect of each primary is determined by those before it and by May 6 the District election could have acquired an importance well beyond the size of its delegation, Feldman said. "It's the home of the federal government. It's an opinion leader. In many ways it represents the black community," Feldman said. "As the District goes, so goes the black community."
As soon as Kennedy's name began circulating as a possible candidate, conventional wisdom in Washington political circles made him the candidate to beat -- based in large part on the fact that this city is 70 percent black and national opinion polls have consistently shown Kennedy the preferred choice of blacks over Carter, who won the 1976 District primary.
With Kennedy's hat now officially in the ring, District politicians on all levels are beginning to take a closer look at him.
"Kennedy will win it and come out with a solid victory," said City Council member John Ray, one of three District legislators openly supporting Kennedy. "But for him to do that, people are going to have to go out and work. His victory cannot be taken for granted."
Some District politicians contend that blacks should not commit themselves to Kennedy until he makes a formal commitment to them.
How Kennedy stands on issues affecting blacks will probably be more important to his winning in the District primary than his stance on issues affecting District government.
Numerous questions are being raised in political circles around town: Who are the blacks around Kennedy that have the same kind of access to him that Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young have to President Carter? What has Kennedy said about issues acutely affecting blacks, like unemployment?
Carter claims to have appointed hundreds of blacks to key positions. What has Kennedy done? Isn't it more comfortable to have a Baptist rather than a Catholic in the White House, some preachers ask? Aside from inheriting the reputation of his brothers, what has Teddy Kennedy actually done for blacks nationwide?
Kennedy adviser Feldman said he has heard most of those arguments. "That's the White House line," he said. "It doesn't hold up. I don't think Teddy runs on his brothers' records. There's no point in comparing him to Bobby or Jack. His own record in regards to blacks and civil rights couldn't be better."
Feldman concedes that as the campaign progresses, Kennedy may lose some ground to Carter among blacks -- maybe. "He starts ahead," Feldman said. "So there has to be something to reduce his lead. But I don't know how that's gonna happen because he's not going to waiver."
Regardless of his stand on the issues, putting together his Washington campaign operation may also be a test for Kennedy. District of Columbia politicians, often jealously guarding their petty political fiefdoms, may be as difficult to deal with as veteran power brokers in other cities.
Kennedy will first have to navigate the waters of the two rival groups supporting his candidacy here. Already, both groups have collected hefty lists of supporters and names of precinct workers which suggest that their group can deliver the votes the senator needs.
Sometime this week, Feldman said, the Kennedy organization will announce where it plans to hold its first major Washington fundraiser. "There are already about six different people who think they will be in charge of the fundraiser," Feldman said.