When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy started out Wednesday on the stretch run of the primary race here, his pollsters gave him a disconcerting statistic -- only one in three New Yorkers knew that Kennedy has called for a wage and price freeze to fight inflation.
Kennedy has given his plea for controls a dozen times a day for the past two months, and every time he has done it before a media army that includes two reporters each from all three television networks and a score more from the national print media. How could his primary message not get through?
A partial answer might be drawn from Kennedy's news conference that same Wednesday morning.
After a ritual opening from the candidate ("I'm delighted to have the chance to be here to talk about the crucial economic problems . . .") the assembled reporters spent 20 minutes asking 57 varieties of a single question: "How will you do in New York?"
This was typical. For the most part, the questions and coverage on Kennedy's campaign have centered on his horse race with Jimmy Carter and personal matters -- not the issues.
But while the press critics have been deploring this fact, the presumed victim does not. Kennedy staunchly refuses to complain about the press coverage, and sometimes finds himself defending the press against the press.
In an interview recently, a television reporter indignantly asked Kennedy to comment on the fact that the press is ignoring his economic stands. The candidate replied that some of the media have covered economics, and went on to observe that "after all, reporters know that people are interested in family matters."
In another interview a couple of days later, Kennedy explained, without a trace of indignation, that getting coverage of his economic ideas is a "game" and that he has learned how to play.
"If I give a funny remark, or put my arm around my family, you know, that's what's going to be on the morning news," he said. "You can't even shake hands, you have to play that game, just hit the basic stuff or it isn't going to get on."
But every campaign day is filled with pageantry and pathos, color and comedy, and it is tempting for reporters to focus on that rather than on the tedium of the same wage and price controls argument repeated for the thousandth time.
Sunday was a nice example. Kennedy's campaign went from a lively guitar mass in an Italian neighborhood in Queens to a boisterous Baptist church in a black ghetto of Brooklyn to a meeting of the Rabbinical Board of Flatbush, where the rabbis in their black suits, hats, and long beards gave grand speeches in Hebrew and English, one of which compared Kennedy to the "shepherd" in the 23rd Psalm.
Later Kennedy stood on a makeshift platform amid a sea of Hassidic Jews on a Brooklyn street corner and said the Carter administration should be called "the surprise administration," because the president was surprised by inflation, surprised by the Russians, and surprised by his own United Nations ambassador.
Material like that is irresistible for most reporters, but by the time they have finished with that, the reporters don't have much room to note that Kennedy also spoke in detail about the Mideast, inflation, and the status of minorities in America.
Kennedy does not seem to have any rancor toward reporters who continue to press him on his character, his marriage, and Chappaquiddick.
But the other day he did note something that he called "kind of ironic" about those questions -- many of those who asked have family problems of their own.
"You know, I was on this interview show in Boston and they had a panel and those reporters kept asking me about my wife and my family . . . and I looked up and I thought I could count three or four divorces right on that panel.
"At the end of it I really wanted to go up to [the moderator] and say, 'Hey, how's your first wife?'"