President Carter took on the expected challenge of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) tonight, suggesting that a comparison of their accomplishments would show that Kennedy holds no special claim to a record of political leadership.
Answering questions before a raucous but generally friendly "town meeting" crowd of about 2,500 at Queens College here, Carter said he looks forward to his first "preliminary skirmish" with Kennedy next month in Florida, and that he will expect his record and those of all his potential opponents to be compared during the coming campaign.
He pointedly noted that during Kennedy's 16 years in the Senate he has made enactment of a comprehensive national health insurance program his top priority, but has failed to get such legislation out of a subcommittee.
"It isn't easy," the president said.
In a preview of what is also expected to be a major theme if Kennedy, as is now widely expected, challenges Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination, Carter said his own record will show that he has maintained "a steady hand" in dealing with national and international crises.
"I don't think I panicked in a crisis," he said.
It was the second time in less than a week that the president has referred to his own "steadiness in a crisis," which has prompted questions of whether he intended indirectly to raise the issue of Kennedy's action during the Chappaquiddick accident in 1969. In that incident, a car driven by Kennedy plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., and a passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.
White House press secretary Jody Powell has denied any such intention, but said that Carter's personal traits and character will be emphasized in the coming campaign.
Kennedy admitted after the accident that he behaved poorly in the crisis, which included a delay of several hours in reporting the accident to police.
The first skirmish between Carter and Kennedy, which the president referred to tonight, will occur Oct. 13, when delegates are selected to the mid-November Florida Democratic convention. The convention is to endorse a presidential candidate in a non-binding vote.
Kennedy, apprised of Carter's remarks on the senator's leadership, said in Washington tonight, "I'll let the people make that decision . . . . I've been involved for 17 years . . . . If I were to be a candidate, I'd let the people decide, and I'd welcome the opportunity for that judgment to be made."
As to Carter's reference to the handling of crises, the senator said the "real issues" are going to be economic and that people in leadership positions will be judged on them.
He added that the administration has been "slow in the formulation" of its health insurance program. "We need a president who is going to lead on that issue," Kennedy said.
Carter's appearance tonight was the first time he has held a "town meeting" in a major urban area, and it included some of the aspects of the rough-and-tumble world of New York politics.
"If you will not be timid with your questions, I will not be timid with my answers," Carter said in opening the session.
The New Yorkers did not disappoint him. The second questioner, who identified himself as Stuart Weinberg, told the president he had worked for him in 1976, and asked, "What makes your first term merit reelection?"
Carter cited reduced unemployment, said much of the rise in inflation was due to higher energy prices, over which he said he had no control, and said he had no apology for last summer's Cabinet shakeup. In passing, he mentioned Kennedy's frustration in dealing with the national health insurance legislation.
The president was apparently persuasive. "You might just get me to work for you a second time," Weinberg said.
Another questioner raised the issue of Kennedy's challenge more directly, saying that it would apparently revolve around leadership, and asked, "How do you intend to lead us, how do you intend to inspire us?"
Citing his "steady hand" in a crisis, Carter conceded that he has suffered some disappointments, but said his record will show that "I haven't been afraid to tackle the tough issues."
In response to other questions tonight, Carter:
Defended his Middle East policy and appealed the support of the current negotiations. Pledging never to abandon Israel, he said he views with "concern and disgust" suggestions in some quarters that "Zionism is the same as racism."
Said it would be "ill-advised" to order a shutdown of the nation's nuclear power plants before completion of the investigation into the Three Mile Island accident. This response drew shoults of protest from anti-nuclear activists in the audience.
The president traveled to the "town meeting" after saying in a speech earlier today that the country must reclaim its dilapidated urban mass transit systems as part of a national energy program, the success of which he linked to passage of the windfall-profits tax on the oil industry.
In a speech to the American Public Transit Association convention here, the president appealed for help from mass transit supporters to combat oil industry lobbyists who, he said, are "swarming all over Capitol Hill, working to devastate the windfall profits tax."
The stakes in the legislative battle, Carter said, are $100 billion that will go to the oil companies if all of the pro-industry amendments to the legislation that are now pending are approved.
"And what would they do with that money?" the president asked. "Develop renewable energy resources? Push for national energy conservation? Help poor people pay their fuel bills? Devote $13 billion to public transportation? Of course not.
"These crucial steps are not their business," Carter said. "But they are the public's business, and the nation needs these funds to make our energy future secure."
The president spoke to about 3,000 state and local transit officials, who are among the strongest backers of the windfall-profits tax. The chief fear of these officials is that the tax proposal will remain bogged down in the Senate Finance Committee, and that the administration will not come up with an alternative revenue source to increase spending for public transit programs.
Carter painted a rosy picture for the future of mass transit in the country, provided there is enough money available. He made no specific new proposals, but called for a "quantum jump" in public investment in mass transis, up to $50 billion in the 1980s.
Washington Post staff writer, Fred Barbash contributed to this article.