Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign may be headed, as some polls suggest, straight for oblivion, but along the way an unusual political achievement ought to be noted: He is getting people to stand up and cheer for gasoline rationing.
Since Monday, when Kennedy suggested that the government require Americans to cut gasoline use by 25 percent, he has presented the idea to big-city audiences in New York and Philadelphia and to small towns all over New Hampshire and Maine.
Most of the time, the proposal is greeted with applause and shouts of approval.
Gas rationing appears to be playing better here in New England's version of Peoria, in fact, than the other major domestic proposal Kennedy raised Monday -- wage-price controls.
His call for immediate controls draws a tepid response and hostile questions, despite the fact that most polls show a majority of Americans in favor of price controls and opposed to gasoline rationing.
One reason may be that, in Kennedy's formulation, you would have to be either a warmonger or heartless brute to oppose gas rationing.
"The clearest way to send a signal to the Soviets right now would be to end our dependence of Persian Gulf oil," Kennedy told a crowd jammed into a small elementary school auditorium here today.
"But there really are no choices on that except rationing by price -- which means poor people have to choose between gasoline and food while rich people make no sacrifices -- or developing a fair rationing system which sees to it that every American, rich or poor, makes the same sacrifice for this essential national goal.
"I believe people would rather use a little less gasoline in their cars than spill the blood of young Americans to protect OPEC's pipelines."
This last sentence flows neatly, of course, into another major point of Kennedy's Georgetown speech: that President Carter's response to the Midle East situation is "exaggerated militarism" that may bring America unnecessarily "to the edge of war."
Early in the week Kennedy campaigned almost entirely on the basis of the proposals he set forth on Monday at Georgetown University in a speech aimed at reviving his campaign. Gradually he began to throw in much of the general discussion about leadership and the American spirit that was his stock in trade before the Iowa caucuses.
By today, the stump speech was still emphasizing gas rationing, price controls, and warnings about militarism. But for the most part, it was the same speech that apparently didn't work for Kennedy in Iowa.
And Kennedy was basically the same candidate. Erratic, unpredictable, he appeared spellbinding at one campaign stop and soporific at the next. In answering questions, he was sometimes impressive and even moving, and at other times muddled and almost incomprehensible.
There was evidence, though, that some things are looking up for his beleaguered campaign.
The bad press notices that have plagued Kennedy almost since the day he announced for president seemed to be getting better. Some columnists who has previously criticized him praised his Georgetown speech and his gumption for trying to start over. In some news stories, the standard Kennedy campaign adjective, "faltering," gave way to new ones like "rejuvenated" and "born again."
In an interview as his campaign bus rolled across the snowy fields of Maine, the candidate, relaxed and philosophical, said between puffs on a long cigar, that money is starting to trickle in again and that he can now buy advertising time in New England.
He noted that half-hour films of his Georgetown speech broadcast in New England Monday night brought in more in contributions than it cost to show them.
Kennedy seemed pleased too, with people's response to a theme that he has raised at every stop this week -- President Carter's refusal to face him in a head-to-head debate.
"Why is it all right to make phone calls, send the vice president, send Mrs. Carter, send the whole Cabinet to Maine," he said to the crowd here, "and say that kind of political activity doesn't threaten the well-being of the [Tehran] hostages, but, to go outside the White House and go on the same platform with those challengers at the same time will endanger the hostages?"
Kennedy let it sink in for a moment, then said, "That's basically hogwash."