The first reviews are, at the very best, mixed. The crowds have been good, but not great; more curious than committed. One month into his long-postponed pursuit of the presidency, Edward Kennedy has confronted an immutable political commandment: there are no "New Havens" in a genuine national campaign, no chances to rewrite the second act.
For Edward Kennedy, this harsh maxim was enforced in a San Francisco television studio when his inapt remarks about the deposed shah became the next morning's headlines across the nation. Kennedy (precisely because that is his name) skipped the spring-training period virtually all presidential challengers endure and some never survive: the unreported and often unattended Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons, high school assemblies and garden clubs in places like Waterloo and White River Junction. On those unglamorous platforms -- away from mini-cams and microphones -- a 1975 Jimmy Carter or a 1979 George Bush polishes and perfects his most valuable campaign possession -- the basic speech. Of course, this whole seasoning process is necessary only for those candidates who have never been through a Kennedy campaign.
The "Kennedy campaign." It is almost one word to generations of Americans indoctrinated by memories and memoirs. But the fact is that Edward Kennedy, in 1980, is on his own for the first time in a real political campaign.
In 1962, John Kennedy's savvy White House staff provided strategic and tactical support to 30-year-old Edward Kennedy in his victory over Massachusetts Attorney General Edward McCormack for the Democratic nomination for the last two years of the president's Senate term. Not that Edward Kennedy needed any coaching on the campaign circuit.He was a natural, brimming with vitality and his disproportionate share of Kennedy charm. Republican George Lodge never had a chance, that fall, when Edward Kennedy recycled his brother's 1952 campaign slogan: "He can do more for Massachusetts." In 1964, with the late president already a revered martyr in Massachusetts, Kennedy, hospitalized by a broken back from a near-fatal airplane crash, won reelection to the Senate by the most votes in the state's history. Republican Howard Whitmore played the part George Lodge had played in 1962. In 1970, the Republican nominee was gentlemanly Josiah Spaulding, possibly the only registered voter in the Commonwealth who failed to discuss Chappaquiddick during the entire campaign. Through little fault of Spaulding's, Kennedy's winning percentage slipped that year to a mere landslide 63 percent. And in 1976, proving there is no shortage of willing Kamikaze pilots among Massachusetts Republicans, Michael Robertson "held" Kennedy to 70 percent of the Massachusetts vote.
In American politics, perception very easily becomes reality. Because he appeared to be invincible, Kennedy drew opponents of the relative strength of Whitmore, Spaulding and Robertson and thereby demonstrated his invincibility. But along with the perception of Kennedy's electoral invincibility -- which was and is very real in Massachusetts -- grew the impression of Kennedy campaign invicibility. The Edward Kennedy campaigns never lacked for adequate funding (Robertson was outspent by more than 5 to 1), but they were never real contests against realistic opponents who could compete even for press coverage, let alone votes. Edward Kennedy campaigned effectively and extensively in 1962, 1970 and 1976. But the outcome was never once in doubt. The campaigns were run by a succession of Kennedy relatives and friends who gained exposure, but not experience, and a more interesting resume for their time.
Obviously, this campaign, especially because it is a primary campaign against an incumbent president, is entirely different. Not only must Edward Kennedy compete for help and support among Democrats, but he has to make literally hundreds of difficult political decisions: Who will be the Kennedy labor chief in Ohio? In Michigan? What about Mayor Jane Byrne? Will she be allowed to dominate the Kennedy campaign in Illinois, contrary to the established Kennedy practice of always putting in charge an outsider whose fate, fortune and future are tied to Kennedy? Who tells the candidate he is about to make a mistake? For the first time, what Democratic voters does Kennedy have to write off?
And for the first time in his life Edward Kennedy is running against an incumbent. The incumbent will be the first Kennedy opponent whom Kennedy cannot outspend and the first who is guaranteed a parity of press coverage with the senator.
Already we have witnessed almost cruel retribution in the campaign of 1980. Edward Kennedy, whose popularity is at least partly inherited from the public's happy memories of his two brothers, finds himself not compared directly with a heretofore unpopular president, but contrasted unfavorably by the current generation with their idealized recollections of John and Robert Kennedy. In the Roger Mudd interview, Edward Kennedy clearly lacked Jack's wit and eloquence. On the stump, he is reportedly without Bob's passion and conviction.
Inevitably, every presidential campaign becomes a mirror reflection of the candidate. Richard Nixon's own criminality and paranoia infused his 1972 campaign just as Jimmy Carter's own discipline and insularity characterized his 1976 effort. It is the candidate who defines the campaign, determines the message and delegates the authority. A good presidential campaign communicates the candidate's values and vision to the voters. That's what elections are supposed to be about: different values and different visions between different persons. Edward Kennedy is still very publicly in the process of defining, determining and delegating.
Six long weeks remain until the Iowa caucuses and two months until the New Hampshire primary. Then real voters will have the chance to compare Edward Kennedy with Jimmy Carter, rather than with two legends. Legends generally do not lose Harris polls, but they can be a less-than-mixed blessing, as Edward Kennedy is discovering in his first real campaign.