The surprising amount of political power that President Carter has focused here to avoid defeat by Teddy Kennedy in the Oct. 13 caucuses belies the moribund state of his presidency.
"If Carter would only work Congress or the Russians over like he's working Florida, he would have less to worry about," one neutral observer told us.
There are reasons to spare for his doing so, even though the muscled drive for success here is raising eyebrows of politicans and voters dismayed by the string of Carter failures in other endeavors of his presidency.
Reason No. 1: a loss to Kennedy, whose almost-candidacy could be damaged but not possibly destroyed by even a big Carter victory, would finish Carter off as a national leader. It would render the balance of his presidency all but superfluous, particularly in view of Carter's natural constituency in much of the state that borders Georgia.
That explains the phenomenal -- and seemingly effective -- political engineering plotted by Hamilton Jordan in heading off Kennedy. Jordan's work in the stretch drive to the non-binding but psychologically important Oct. 13 caucuses proves that in the game of elective politics, the flawed White House chief of staff is still very much in command.
By no means is a Carter victory positively ensured in the obscenely confusing process that will select 879 delegates at 67 county caucuses Oct. 13. These, along with 838 non-elected delegates, will then choose their favorite for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination in a legally meaningless straw vote at the party's November mock convention. Next March, the legal Florida primary election will select the actual delegates to the party's New York convention next summer.
But the Oct. 13 caucuses ("a wild animal," in the words of Richard Swann, Carter's chief fund-raiser here) contain so much potential for Carter's political demise that he has galvanized his whole administration to help him. He has also commandeered 99 percent of the highly effective state administration and political apparatus of popular Gov. Bob Graham, while pulling in money and workers from all over the country.
In the past few weeks, former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young personally telephoned three black delegate-candidates on slates committed to Kennedy. His stern message: don't desert Jimmy Carter now. Two at once removed themselves (one of whom, persuaded to risk Carter-Young wrath, later agreed to get back on).
Scores of Carter and potential Carter backers have been flown off to a full day of frilly "briefings" on world problems in the White House -- all expenses paid -- to soften them up. A Kennedy leader in Jacksonville's Duval County told us that a contributor to the Kennedy campaign asked to be relieved of his $1,000 pledge on grounds that Graham was about to appoint him to a state commission.
What is unique is not such routine political arm-twisting but its eye-popping volume. "What we really want," said one of Carter's chief political operatives here, "is not just to defeat Kennedy but to Schapp him." Carter's spectacular ascent four years ago started right here in Florida when he swept the party's mock convention. His only serious opponent was then-Gov. Milton Schapp of Pennsylvania. Carter swamped Schapp with 67 percent of the vote.
The "Kennedy '80" leaders, stripped of any public help from the senator, will pull heavily in Carter-hating Jewish precincts, particulary the three large counties of Dade (Miami), Broward (Ft. Lauderdale) and Palm Beach. That is Kennedy country. Capturing the caucuses in all three big counties would give him 43 percent of the elected delegates, and his top managers -- disenchanted 1976 Carter activists -- are trying to cut into the traditional, non-liberal vote in central and northern Florida to show broad Kennedy strength.
They might conceivably do that; in a political process that defies accurate forecasting, they might even do better. If they do not, Carter will have proved that even a president flattened by political reverses in Washington can still focus the awesome power of his office to score a local victory. Such a triumph would portend little if anything for the serious Kennedy contests next winter, nor would it visibly elevate the benighted presidency of Jimmy Carter.