In California this week, television viewers will see a film clip of President Carter grinning irrespressibly while an announcer reads this message:
"If California hands the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter on June 3, everyone says the race will be over. And so will our choices. And California will be telling all of America that we want four more years of Jimmy Carter leading this country the same way he has for the past four years."
As the announcer says this, the years are superimposed on the picture of the smiling Carter: 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984. The announcer continues:
"But if we don't give Jimmy Carter the nomination, the possibilities open up, and so will the Democratic convention. It's up to you, California. If you want Democrats to have a choice at the convention, there's only one choice on June 3: Ted Kennedy."
After seven months, Edward M. Kennedy's campaign for the White House has come to this: vote for me not to elect me president, but to keep the race open, to allow "the possibilities [to] open up."
This is not the only message in the new TV spots that New York media consultant David Sawyer has made for Kennedy in California, but it is the main message. Other Sawyer spots emphasize Kennedy's leadership capabilities, as demonstrated by his Senate career, or suggest that Kennedy has proven his personal qualities by his behavior in this long, and thus far disappointing, campaign.
But the principal objective of these final Kennedy commercials, Sawyer and pollster Peter Hart indicated in an interview here, is to remind California Democrats that they have the power to keep the contest alive and perhaps head off Carter's renomination.
"The voters of California have given up on Jimmy Carter -- it's that simple," said Hart, who has recently concluded polls in California for the Kennedy campaign.
What Hart did not say, but what the new Kennedy ads clearly suggest, is that the polls do not reveal much positive support for Kennedy in California. tInstead, apparently, Hart found inklings of support for Kennedy as potentially a competent and more inspiring president, but the main finding must have been the California voters' debate for Carter.
"The material is there to build a more positive image of the senator [Kennedy]," Sawyer said. "The problem is it takes time to do that . . . Ultimately that's the only way to deal with the whole series of negatives he [Kennedy] has." With only enough money to run ads for a week before the June 3 primary, the Kennedy campaign does not have that time.
Hart said his polling had found that California Democrats had very little faith in Carter's ability to "build the confidence of the American people to deal with the problems facing America." Carter, said Hart, appeared "totally bankrupt" on that issue when Californians were asked about it.
Largely as a result, two of the new Kennedy commercials feature film footage of a Saturn 5 rocket lifting an Apollo capsule off the launching pad, with an accompanying message emphasizing hope for America's future.
In one of these commercials, the announcer says:
"Have we lost the spirit that put man on the moon? The spirit that enabled us to solve the toughest problems and meet the greatest challenges? Or do you believe that we still have that spirit in us . . .?"
The commercial ends with an excerpt from a Kennedy speech: "This is the country that put mankind's footprints in the valleys of the moon, and I say we can meet our challenges in the 1980s!" Kennedy delivers the line in a strong voice reminiscent of his brother John.
Sawyer said this commercial was an example of "trying to take advantage of the feelings people already have." At one point, Sawyer said, he toyed with making a commercial with film clips of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, making the point that they never sought to limit America's horizons.
"What we are trying to do," Hart said, "is provide the voter with some reassurances and confidence about the future."
Hart expressed great enthusiasm for these new Sawyer commercials, predicting that they will "touch a very responsive chord in California."
Hart's opposite number in the Carter camp, pollster Patrick Caddell, listened to a description of the new Kennedy ads and the rationale for them, then commented: "When you have a candidate who can't get elected on his own, they make good sense."
Caddell said his polls show the race in California to be close, and added that Carter is probably less popular there than in other states. He declined to respond to Hart's findings on Carter's particular weaknesses there, but said he hoped "they would discuss themselves [i.e., Kennedy's weaknesses] with equal candor."
The commercials pleading with Californians to keep the contest alive by voting for Kennedy demonstrate that "they don't have a credible candidate or a credible campaign any more," Caddell said. "I think that's the bottom line."