House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill Jr. said yesterday his strong feeling that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) won't run for president is just that -- a feeling -- and is not based on any recent conversation with Kennedy.
O'Neill (D-Mass.) saw Kennedy socially several times in the last week, at a Kennedy Center production, a Hispanic Caucus dinner and a reception O'Neill gave for Boston Red Sox star Carl Yazstremski. But the Speaker claimed yesterday the two men never discussed Kennedy's possible candidacy during those meetings. He said, "The only knowledge I have is a conversation 10 weeks ago when Kennedy said he wasn't running and he was supporting Jimmy Carter."
In an interview Sunday with a New York radio station, O'Neill said he believed Kennedy would not be a candidate.
Yesterday he said he based those feelings "on the fact that the people closest to his organization have not been notified of his plans. None of them have direct knowledge of what the man might do."
O'Neill added that "if he were a candidate, he would be out there organizing. There's no advance men sent anywhere about Kennedy."
O'Neill said that is not the way the Kennedys operate. The Speaker refused to speculate on why Kennedy himself has indicated he might be a candidate if the economy fails to improve.
Last week O'Neill helped escalate the speculation by saying that if Kennedy were a candidate he would win, and by adding that Carter could expect no support from the New England delegations in Congress if Kennedy ran.
Asked to explain O'Neill's latest potion that Kennedy won't run, an O'Neill aide said, "He really believes it." The aide strenuously denied that yesterday's statements were prompted by either the Kennedy or the Carter camp.
The speaker went out of his way yesterday to praise President Carter: "I think he's a beautiful human being, highly intelligent." O'Neill added there were "problems in his staff and operations" but "he is doing as reasonable a job as anyone could under the circumstances."
Asked if House members feared they would be pulled down if Carter headed the ticket, O'Neill said, "It works both says." He said Kennedy's strong philosophy might pull some House members down, too.
O'Neill predicted Carter would be the Democratic nominee against Republican Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California.