Democratic National Chairman John C. White charged yesterday that a group of congressmen who have organized an effort to draft Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for president have driven a divisive "wedge into party ranks" that may lead to its defeat in 1980.
"The continued activities of people like the five congressmen is going to almost surely hand over the presidency on a silver platter to John Connally or Ronald Reagan," White told a news conference.
His unusually harsh statement came just four hours after the congressmen announced the formation of a Coalition of Democratic Alternatives to oppose the renomination of President Carter. Four of the five members of the group said their favorite alternative is Kennedy.
"To those who say Sen. Kennedy will not run, we say let us develop a national mandate for his candidacy that is irresistible," said Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.).
The three other congressmen endorsing the draft-Kennedy move are Reps. Edward P. Beard (D-R.I.), Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.) and Richard Nolan (D-Minn.). A fifth congressman, John Conyers (D-Mich.), said he was seeking an alternative to Carter but did not specifically support a Kennedy draft.
"We feel betrayed," the congressmen said in a joint statement. "President Carter has abandoned the promises and hopes of his own campaign."
"Jimmy Carter has not provided the leadership, direction, nor workable programs which deal with the growing problems of double-digit inflation, chronic unemployment, nuclear proliferation, energy decontrol, national health Insurance" and a host of other domestic issues, the statement added.
The congressmen readily acknowledged that Kennedy has repeatedly said he has no plans to run in 1980. But they maintained that decision is not necessarily final.
Conyers said he was not endorsing a draft-Kennedy movement but indicated he would urge black leaders across the country to desert Carter. Noting Carter would not have won election in 1976 without the support of blacks, he said, "It seems clear to me Jimmy Carter is an emperor with no clothes."
The dissidents are not especially powerful either in the House or their respective states. But the group represents the first national effort to put together a draft-Kennedy drive and adds momentum to an increasing number of similar efforts around the country.
Its information comes at a time when Carter supporters in Congress are beginning to admit he is vulnerable to a Kennedy challenge. "The truth of the matter is that if Kennedy were to run, Carter wouldn't get the nomination in my opinion," House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neil Jr. (D-Mass.) said recently.
Kennedy, who has fanned speculation about his candidacy by anti-Carter rhetoric in recent weeks, repeated his longstanding position on 1980. "I expect President Carter to be renominated and reelected and I intend to support him," the Massachusetts Democrat said yesterday.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that it will take a stronger-worded, unequivocal statement from Kennedy to stop the draft movement, one he is not ready to make. In the meantime, the only other potential Democratic challenger on the horizon is California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
Asked if Brown would be an alternative to Carter, Stark said, "I think when he grows up and decides what he wants to do, he might qualify."
Asked if the draft effort would split the party, the California Democrat replied, "It probably would split 90 percent for Kennedy and 10 percent for everyone else." CAPTION: Picture 1, Congressmen opposing President Carter's renomination hold news conference. They are, from left, Reps. Conyers, Nolan, Stark, Ottinger and Beard. By James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Kennedy: "I expect President Carter to be renominated and reelected and I intend to support him." AP