House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said yesterday that he has "strong feelings" that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will not challenge President Carter's renomination.
O'Neill, a close friend of the Kennedy family, said in a New York radio interview that "I truly believe, as I'm talking here . . . that the nominee will be Carter."
The Speaker's views came as a surprise to many Democratic politicians who had read Kennedy's statements in the past 10 days as pointing toward the likelihood of a challenge.
But senior Carter administration officials said last night that O'Neill had told them the same thing late last week, presumably on the basis of his own discussions with Kennedy.
O'Neill had said publicly last week that if Kennedy sought the Democratic nomination against Carter, the senator would probably win. O'Neill's allegiance in sugh a fight would almost certainly be with his home-state senator.
But in an interview with radio station WOR, he said, "I still have to take it on good faith that he (Kennedy) is not a candidate for the presidency . . . Those are my strong feelings." O'Neill said he based his feelings on "the method in which I have seen the Kennedys operate," which he indicated are not being used in the current draft-Kennedy and write-in campaigns.
Carter administration officials who spoke with O'Neill late last week said the Speaker indicated to them that he thought Kennedy believed Carter might yet withdraw as a candidate and wanted to position himself to jump into the race in that eventuality.
But the Speaker told the radio interviewer that he personally was sure Carter would run. "He worked hard to become the President of the United States," O'Neill said. "There's no question in my mind this would not be a repetition of 1968, when early primaries changed the opinion of President Johnson and he withdrew.
"He is a very determined person," O'Neill said of Carter, "so I would say that Carter is a candidate for the Democratic nomination . . . to the bitter end. I don't think there's any way he will drop out of the race."
O'Neill dismissed reports that at some point a delegation of Democratic congressional leaders might have to call on Carter to withdraw for the good of the party.
"I would never have any part of that," he said, "and I think it would be awful presumptive of anybody in our party to have the courage, if you call it that, or the stupidity, let me put it that way, and the effrontery, to go to the President of the United States and ask such a question.
"I truly believe, as I'm talking here," O'Neill said, "that Jimmy Carter's the candidate for president and that Ted Kennedy is not the candidate; that the nominee will be Carter and the Republic nominee will be [former California governor Ronald] Reagan."
O'Neill said a Carter-Reagan race "will come down to a philosophical battle and it will be a tough one and a close one, and Carter will ultimately win again."