Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hinted strongly yesterday that he would be willing to abandon his active pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination if President Carter endorsed his call for a wage-price freeze and comprehensive controls to deal with the nation's economic crisis.
"I would go back to the Senate and work intensively" for that program, Kennedy told a group of reporters at his McLean home, regardless of "the ramifications on the schedule of my campaign."
Carter has repeatedly ruled out asking Congress for wage-price controls, but Kennedy said the "collapse" of Carter's own policies is inevitable and could well lead to the elections of a republican president in November.
"Time is running out for him," Kennedy said of the president.
The senator, who resumed campaigning later yesterday in New York, prefaced his comments with his standard assertion that he was "committed to staying in the race all the way to the convention," despite the early primary defeats he has accumulated and what he acknowledged to be severe financial problems in his campaign.
"I expect a strong showing in Illinois" tomorrow, he said, "amd I expect to do better in New York [on March 25] than in Illinois."
But he avoided claiming he would win the delegate contests in either of those states where polls show him an underdog, as he has been everywhere except in his own state of Massachusetts.
Kennedy and Carter's latest anti-in-flation program, announced three days ago is "basically meaningless," adding that his own economic advisers believe the net effect of the package would be "more inflationary than deflationary.'"
Higher gasoline prices resulting from the oil import fee Carter is imposing, and higher interest rates resulting from credit controls, may more than offset the deflationary impact of Carter's proposed budget cuts, Kennedy said.
The senator predicted that Carter will sooner or later he forced to ask authority from Congress for a wage-price freeze and comprehensive controls.
"Looking at it politically," Kennedy said, "the best thing for him to do would be to go to my position." Urging the president to put aside any "sense of pride" about adopting the Kennedy position, the senator said, "Clearly, he would get the credit."
It was at that point that Kennedy said he would "go back to the Senate" himself and join Carter in pushing for enactment of the legislation needed to clamp on controls -- a step Kennedy said could cut inflation two-thirds to an annual rate of 5 or 6 percent within three months.
Such a step might offer Kennedy a graceful exit from a campaign that so far has brought him little but frustration and embarassment.
But he put the offer on different grounds, saying that he would subordinate his own ambitions to helping solve "the number one problem" in the country and averting what he suggested was probable defeat for the Democratic to November.
"It is ominous," he said, "that for the first time in the history of polling, Republicans are perceived as being better able to handle the economic is issues than the Democrats . . . I am convinced that the economic issues will dominate the election, and that means tought sledding for us, unless we can get an effective program and an effective nominee able to defend that program."
While hinting that he might give up his challenge to Carter in return for such a policy reversal by the president, Kennedy refused repeatedly to say outright that he will support Carter in November, if the president beats him for the nomination without adopting the Kennedy economic plan.