President Carter's native South powered him far out front tonight in the Democratic presidential race.
With his landslide victories in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, Carter captured about 183 of the 208 delegates at stake on the biggest day of the primary season so far and erased the lead that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had taken temporarily last week with his home-state Massachusetts win.
The widely anticipated Dixie defeat of Kennedy ushered in eight days of primaries and caucuses in 11 states, climaxing next Tuesday in Illinois, which Carter campaign managers have predicted will break the back of the Senator's challenge.
Kennedy's sole consolation tonight was that he beat Carter among the Jewish voters in Florida -- a possible harbinger of trouble for the president in the March 25 New York primary. Jews make up one-third of the Democratic electorate in New York.
But everywhere else in the tri-state region, it was Carter winning by massive majorities over Kennedy and California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
With 98 percent of the precincts counted in Georgia, Carter had 88 percent of the vote to 9 percent for Kennedy and 2 percent for Brown.
In Florida, with 90 percent of the vote counted, the president's lead over Kennedy was 61 to 22 percent, with 5 percent for Brown and 10 percent with no preference.
The Alabama figures, with 88 percent of the precincts counted were 82 percent for Carter, 13 percent for Kennedy and 4 percent for Brown.
Kennedy went into today's voting with a 115-to-86 delegate lead over Carter. That was converted into a 269-to-139 Carter lead by tonight's unofficial results.
With 392 delegates to be chosen by next Tuesday night, Carter strategists said that Kennedy soon will be trailing in delegates by a 4-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio instead of tonight's almost 2-to-1 figure.
Former Wisconsin governor Patrick J. Lucey, Kennedy's deputy national campaign manager, said in Washington that "we did not expect any victories tonight . . . and we have not been wiped out."
But Kennedy's Florida showing was weaker than his managers had hoped and expected, and White House press secretary Jody Powell said it showed that the senator could not win a national election.
"History shows that no Democrat can win the presidency if he writes off a whole section of the country," Powell said.
Robert S. Strauss, the Carter campaign chairman said in Orlando that tonight was "a great win for us, but it's not a turning point -- not yet."
But New York could be Kennedy's last stand, the Carter strategists maintained.
What could make New York a real battleground for the underdog challenger is the evidence of growing Jewish opposition to Carter.
In Florida, NBC News interviews indicated that Jews comprised 9 or 10 percent of the Democratic electorate. They favored Kennedy over Carter by 3 to 2.
The president was the target of criticism from Jewish leaders for the recent U.S. vote for a U.N. resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy in occupied Arab lands. Carter later said the vote was a mistake and that the American ambassador to the United Nations should have abstained.
While losing the Jews to Kennedy, Carter showed tremendous strength among other voting blocs in Florida, winning blacks by a 3-to-1 ratio, Catholics and union members by 2 to 1, and Protestants by a 7-to-1 ratio, according to ABC news.
The personal issues that have worked against Kennedy everywhere were especially pronounced here. NBC News said that 55 percent of the Democratic voters sampled said that Chappaquiddick had "lowered their opinion of Kennedy," the highest percentage responding affirmatively to that question in any state so far this year.
The outcome in the three states had never been in doubt, although in October, just before Kennedy's formal announcement, a group of Florida volunteers waged a campaign on his behalf that forced Carter backers to make a major effort to assure the president's victory in a state convention straw votes.
Before Christmas, Kennedy strategists ruled out any substantial effort to defeat Carter in the South. And as the senator's troubles mounted in New England and the Midwest, staff and spending for the southern states were cut to the bone.
In the end, Kennedy ran a targeted campaign aimed at winning a handful of delegates in congressional districts with concentrations of black, Jewish and low-income elderly voters.
While Kennedy made three visits to Florida and one to Alabama for fundraising and campaign purposes, most of the campaigning was left to other Kennedy family members.
Late in the Florida campaign, when it became apparent that the president's acknowledged mistake on the United Nations resolution had stirred a storm among Jewish voters, Kennedy cut a radio commercial and distributed 250,000 flyers on that issue.
But Carter had the support of most Jewish and black leaders as well as the Democratic hierarchy in Florida and the other two states. Florida Gov. Robert Graham, Georgia Gov. George Busbee and former Alabama governor George C. Wallace endorsed the president, as did dozens of local officials.
And the campaign organization Carter had put in place when he expected a greater challenge from Kennedy continued to work as if the outcome were in doubt. It never was.