Florida Democrats held a nonbinding cornation in the name of Jimmy Carter today and no one seemed upset that their king's mandate was no more visible than his proverbial new clothes.
Despite the fact that the Iranian crisis kept Carter from attending the celebration, all went according to script at the Democratic convention as the president won the straw vote -- that has no official significance -- by a ratio of 3 to 1. The voting went just as Carter's mangers, including the state hierarchy from Gov. Bob Graham on down, had written it.
In the end, there were balloons and confetti and the president's supporters cheering their way through "Happy Days are Here Again," while in opposite corners of the hall, a Kennedy national campaign official and the remnants of the old Draft Kennedy organization talked -- separately -- of how they will come back strong March 11 in the vote that really counts: the Florida primary that will decide how the state's 100 delegates will be apportioned at next year's national convention.
Meanwhile, Gov. Graham called today's vote a harbinger of the Carter primary victory to come.
The Florida primary is crucial to Jimmy Carter because it immediately follows anticipated Kennedy victories in the initial primaries in New England. A Carter, victory in Florida would go a long way toward determining the viability to Carter's campaign strategy, which is built upon a Southern base.
The Florida straw balloting had all of the suspense of a Gidget-Goes-to-the Beach extravaganza. The system saw to that. Those voting came from two sources: delegates selected at the October caucuses, in which Carter captured more than 60 percent of the ballots, and those appointed by the governor and other officials already committed to Carter and who voted the way their benefactors wanted.
The final straw vote gave Carter 1,114 votes (74 percent), Kennedy 351 votes (23 percent), with 37 undecided or abstaining.
But there was no need to wait until the balloting to know the story of the Florida Democratic convention. The story was there at a glance: Bayfront Auditorium was dominated outside and in by gigantic green-and-white banners that proclaimed "Support President Carter." There were no prominent Kennedy signs.
The Kennedy officials -- small in number -- had time on their hands . A Kennedy national coordinator, Harold Ickes, was at the convention to lend an official campaign presence. So too -- reluctantly -- were the leaders of the Draft Kennedy unit, Michael Abrams, Sergio Bendixen, and Paul Friedman. They had wanted to boycott the convention, knowing that since they had lost the October caucus vote, it was stacked against them. Ickes persuaded them to show up, arguing that it was important to at least try to build enthusiasm among the troops for the March primary.
"It's been 34 days since the Florida caucus and what has national done for the campaign?Nothing."
The speaker is a top official in the old draft-Kennedy effort. The under current of bitterness that divides the Kennedy campaign here could not be concealed. The draft-Kennedy people feel they are being shunted aside by Kennedy's national campaign staff.
A Kennedy national campaign official in Washington insists, "There will be a role for everyone." But he concedes that, as is the Kennedy style, an outsider will be brought in to head the Florida campaign.
Ickes ostensibly was here to lend an official campaign presence. Actually, he was taking the measure of this state to determine whether Kennedy should make an all-out primary effort here or just a minimal effort, saving the big money and manpower for elsewhere and settling for a small, proportional share of the delegates.
Since President Carter, monitoring events in Iran, could not come, he sent his wife instead. Rosalynn Carter, addressing the convention Saturday, praised her husband for "acting with calmness, with courage, with measured action. . ." And then she added a theme that, campaign sources said, originated with the Carter campaign's image and communication consultants. Jimmy Carter, his wife said "always tells the truth." It is a phrase Carter sources say will be repeated often during the campaign. It appears aimed at offering a comparison with Kennedy's controversial explanations of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick -- just as it seemed that Carter was alluding to that tragedy when he said recently he has never panicked in a crisis.
After that comment, Carter wrote Kennedy saying no Chappaquiddick comparison was intended. Carter's campaign consultant, Greg Schneiders, maintains the line refers to the president's statements about difficult choices on energy and other substantive issues, not Chappaquiddick.
"But," says Schneiders, "the line about telling the truth will be one theme of our campaign."