Sen. Edward Kennedy's attempted new start Jan. 27 failed over the following two weeks to erase back-yard suspicion of him here just across the Massachusetts state line, where President Carter now is the substantial favorite in the Feb. 26 New Hampshire Democratic primary.
That is the inescapable conclusion following interviewing last week, with the help of Patrick Caddell's Cambridge Survey research, in a Nashua ward that has proved a barometer for Democratic statewide voting patterns. But Carter's 2-to-1 lead over Kennedy reflects minimum enthusiasm for the president, suggesting trouble ahead in a November showdown with Republican George Bush.
Intense anti-Kennedy feelings combined with mild support for Carter's handling of the Iranian crisis as typified by a 32-year-old university instructor: "It's not so much I favor Carter, but that I'm against Kennedy. In a more positive sense, Carter has handled the foreign situations well."
Such sentiment led to these results in interviews with 74 registered voters in Nashua's Ward 9 who intend to vote in the Democratic primary: Carter, 42; Kennedy, 21; Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., 0; Bush (write-in), 1; Republican John Anderson (write-in), 1; undecided, 9.
Ward 9 is Democratic country -- white-collar and skilled blue-collar workers, many commuting to Massachusetts jobs. Their votes in the 1972 and 1976 Democratic primaries reflected the statewide totals. But the ward's sentiment has undergone radical transformation in the last six months. When we interviewed here last summer just after Carter's Cabinet shake-up, the margin was 6-to-1 for Kennedy over Carter (with the president ahead of unknown Jerry Brown by less than 2-to-1.
Whereas Ward 9 voters last July widely identified Ted Kennedy with his slain brothers and, therefore, better days for America, only four voters last week mentioned the family connection. Out of Carter's 42 voters, 15 volunteered negative feelings about Kennedy as their main reason for supporting the president. The only other widely offered reason for Carter support was the simple fact of incumbency: although his record is viewed as mediocre, these voters prefer it to Kennedy's and Brown's.
"The best thing I can say about Carter is three years in the office," a 45-year-old home-health aide told us, "and the others don't look to promising." 4A 70-year-old retired machinist put it this way: "None of them have said anything to me to indicate they can get us out of the mess, but Carter at least has some experience."
Kennedy's Georgetown University speech did not help him here, where it was broadcast as a commerical. Although 41 of the 74 voters said they watched or heard about it, 12 could remember nothing about it and another eight could remember only Kennedy's preceding televised apology for Chappaquiddick. Of issues raised in Kennedy's speech, these voters favor his wage-price controls proposal nearly 2-to-1, oppose his gasoline rationing scheme by 3-to-2 and favor Carter's draft registration (opposed by Kennedy) by nearly 6-to-1 -- going further than Carter and endorsing an immediate draft, 4-to-3.
Carter has no great advantage on the issues. His handling of the Iranian hostage impasse is split between approval and disapproval, and he has only a narrow margin of support on his response to Afghanistan (with a substantial minority saying he reacted "too weakly"). He and Kennedy get equal marks on both defense and domestic policies. Incredibly, these voters, by a 3-to-1 margin, perceive Kennedy as tougher on the Russians. By 2-to-1, they reject Carter's argument that he cannot now debate Kennedy.
What is poisoning Kennedy in Ward 9 is the destructive perception of his personal integrity. By nearly 4-to-1, these voters consider Carter more trustworthy, and half believe Kennedy lied about Chappaquiddick.
Kennedy's only bright spot here is the greater intensity of his supporters, all of them solidly pro-Kennedy; seven of Carter's 42 supporters only lean toward him. Some Kennedy backers complained about Carter's new emphasis on foreign affairs. "Kennedy would do something for the working people right here at home," said the 44-year-old wife of a construction worker.
That spells potential November trouble for Carter in Ward 9 if Bush is nominated. Favorable ratings among voters interviewed were Carter, 67 percent; Kennedy, 45 percent; Brown, 16 percent; Ronald Reagan, 16 percent; Sen. Howard Baker, 42 percent. The stunner is what these 74 Democrats think about Republican Bush: 68 percent favorable.
"Carter is doing nothing," said a 29-year-old tavern manager, who would vote for Bush against the president in November. A 50-year-old air traffic controller will write Bushs name in the Democratic primary. While last summer's sentimental affection of weathervane Ward 9 for Teddy Kennedy is gone beyond recall, it has surely not been replaced by overwhelming confidence in Jimmy Carter.