Spokesmen in the political camps of President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday denied a report that Kennedy has told the president he should withdraw from the 1980 presidential race to avoid handing the White House to the Republicans.
The report was published yesterday in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. The paper, quoting unnamed sources, said Kennedy made the suggestion during a lunch with Carter at the White House Friday. It said Kennedy considers the president a "political cripple" who will hurt other Democratic candidates in 1980, and that he told Carter during the lunch that a primary battle between them would only help the GOP.
Tom Southwick, Kennedy's press secretary, said, "The story is inaccurate.
"The reporter did not talk to the senator," Southwick added. "I don't know who the sources were, but they're not the senator and they're not people who are close to the senator."
White House press secretary Jody Powell also disputed the report and called the idea that Kennedy would suggest a Carter withdrawal "absurd."
"That is not our understanding of what went on at the meeting," Powell said.
Rosalynn Carter even got in on the denials. She said she attended part of Kennedy's meeting with her husband and that no such discussion took place while she was present.
Another official familiar with the lunch conversation said Kennedy made "no recommendations" to the president. "He offered no political advice," the official said.
The newspaper report was the latest example of the increasingly intense maneuvering between the politically embattled president and Kennedy, who, although not an announced presidential candidate, continues to hold a wide lead over Carter in public opinion polls.
The Journal and Constitution said Kennedy believes he could defeat Carter in a primary contest next year. It said the Massachusetts senator also believes the president will come under increasing pressure to withdraw from the race in coming weeks from other Democrats who see their own election chances jeopardized by Carter's political vulnerability.
A Carter operative said yesterday that Kennedy has clearly embarked on a strategy to try to force the president out of the race and thus gain Democratic nomination without a bruising primary battle.
By remaining a "noncandidate," the aide said, Kennedy is not as closely scrutinized by the press as he would be otherwise, and the various groups trying to draft him for the nomination are not subject to Federal Election Commission fund-raising limits.
But the Carter aide said that sooner or later Kennedy will be forced to conclude that this strategy will not work. "Who knows what he will do then?" he said.
Democratic National Chairman John White also scoffed at the idea that Carter would withdraw voluntarily from the race in favor of Kennedy, calling such suggestions "pure horse manure."