Somewhere amid the farm tour, the fund-raiser, the 14 local interviews, the press conference, the meeting with black leaders, and the rally for his Nebraska supporters, presidential candidate Edward M. Kennedy took a minute over the weekend to call his 89-year-old mother, Rose.
As the senator recounted, the following conversation ensued:
"Hello, mother, it's Ted."
"Are you still campaigning dear?"
"Yes, Mother, it's going well."
"Well . . . all right, dear, whatever you like."
It is probably a fair generalization to say that the voters of Nebraska feel roughly the same way Rose Kennedy does about the presidential primary contestants: Are these guys still campaigning? Even with primaries in both parties coming up tomorrow, most Nebraskans, according to political pros here, do not seem terribly excited
"There's just a feeling that the nominations are all sewed up," says Larry Rasky, a Carter-Mondale campaign worker. "So you know, we could have a close election on the Democratic side here, but you still don't find all that much enthusiasm."
If Nebraska is paying diminished attention to the presidential candidates, the candidates, with one exception, have returned the favor. No contender except Kennedy has been here in weeks.
On the Republican side, there is almost no campaign at all. GOP leaders agree that Ronald Reagon will romp to a big win over George Bush in the popular vote. Some predict the former California governor will sweep all 25 of the state's national convention delegates.
A poll published in yesterday's Omaha World-Herald shows Reagan leading Bush by 71 to 11 percent, with seven percent of the Republicans surveyed favoring independent John Anderson, who will be on the GOP ballot.
Nebraska is one of the few primary states that have not seen a Carter of any age or gender during this campaign season. The president's supporters here tried to get Vice President Mondale as a surrogate campaigner, but that plan washed out, so Nebraska settled for a surrogate's surrogate, Joan Mondale who came to Omaha briefly last week.
Nonethless, the president would seem to be in good shape to capture most of the 24 Democratic delegates, judging from the polls. The World-Herald poll shows Carter leading Kennedy by 46 percent to 19 percent. w
The poll also shows, however, that another 33 percent have not decided between two. That worries the Carter people on two counts.
For one thing, there will be a line on the Democratic ballot for "uncommitted.," Some politicians, like Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.), think that many Democrats -- possibly up to 25 percent -- will choose this option. If that happens, Carter again will have to explain why party members who have rejected Kennedy are still unwilling to back their incumbent president.
More importantly, Kennedy has put on a strong Nebraska push to win over the undecideds. He has received considerable media attention. He gave an impressive speech last week before 1,200 Democratic leaders at the party's annual dinner. And Nebraska Democrats traditionally give a majority to the candidate who campaigns most in the state.
The undaunted challenger, still plugging away 16 hours per day as though he and Carter were in a neck-and-neck race for the nomination, is hitting the president here on inflation, unemployment, the grain embargo and its depressing effect on grain prices, the government's role in balling out over-extended silver speculators W. Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt at a time when ordinary consumers are almost shut out of credit markets.
Kennedy canceled most of his TV commercials for lack of funds. But he garnered statewide TV coverage Friday when he visited Lavern Rockenbach's farm near Lincoln and got involved in a campaign rarity -- a give-and-take conversation between candidate and voters.
On a quiet, peaceful afternoon, Kennedy met with 80 local farmers in a small yard behind the Rockenbach's ivy-covered farmhouse. Geese chattered. Roosters crowed. The wind danced in a big cottonwood tree over Kennedy's head; behind him stood a row of lilac bushes heavy with blossoms, and behind them the broad, flat wheatlands stretched to the horizon.
Kennedy got into trouble when he proposed a loan rate of $2.40 a bushel for corn, a figure farmers found too low.
"One of those geese, sounds to me like, just laid an egg." a farmer said. "And that's the way I feel about your comment on the corn price."
But Kennedy hit a more responsive chord when he talked about Carter's economic policies and the simulataneous high inflation and high interest rates the nation is experiencing.
"You're right, you're right," said Lavern Rockenbach, pushing his black cowboy hat back on his head. "The average farmer, this time, I think, is more depressed than any time since the '30s. And I know -- I was there."