Out in the real world, the conventional wisdom holds that Edward M. Kennedy is a beaten man. But in the strange and isolated realm of the Kennedy-for-president campaign, that message has not yet gotten through.
Seven months after his frenetic and largely futile pursuit of delegates began, Kennedy is still careening around the country as if the campaign were born yesterday and still flying high. In the past week he has traveled 14,000 miles, unveiled two new stump speeches, held a dozen fund-raisers, launched a series of commercials, and even invoked the power of incumbency (he is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman) to further his candidacy.
The candidate's ruddy face is marked now by deep brown circles under the eyes, and as he limps from the pain of a bad back, his paunchy midriff pokes out over the waist of his crumpled blue suit. But somehow Kennedy keeps on handshaking and speechifying. Most of the time -- the exception was a testy debate with a TV newswoman who called him an "idiot" -- he has done it with remarkably good humor.
In a way, Kennedy's unflagging intensity, and his continuing focus on Tuesday's primaries when the rest of the political world is thinking only of the general election, seem appropriate in an endeavor where weirdness has become an accepted way of life.
Nobody on the campaign found it strange Sunday when Kennedy made the trip from Hasbrouk Heights, N.J., to Newark -- normally a 12-mile trip down U.S. 17 -- by a route that went Hasbrouk Heights, Akron, Cleveland, Newark.
Nobody even looked twice in San Franciso when a long-haired biker witn an extended-fork Honda right out of "Easy Rider" found his way into Kennedy's official motorcade. And nobody, not even the candidate, blinked when a group called Ambassadors for Cetaceans inflated a 30-yard-long polyurethane whale in front of the podium during Kennedy's most important San Francisco speech.
The campaign entourage has given up trying to parse Kennedy sentences like these two uttered last week in Cleveland: "I recognize that we are an underdog. We are the first to admit that I am an uphill battle."
It seems equally futile these days to try to reconcile a variety of Kennedy statements that may or may not indicate what he will do after Tuesday's final round of primary balloting.
Sometimes he talks as if he is in tune with the numerical reality that has prompted most observers to label Jimmy Carter a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination.
"Nobody recognizes more clearly than I the odds against my nomination," Kennedy said in Cleveland last week. And sometimes these days when he is asked about continuing his candidacy, he replies only that "I want to continue to be a voice for those in our society that have no voice."
But an hour later he is likely to commit himself to going all the way. He did so as flatly as possible Friday when a Los Angeles interviewer asked if he would drop out before the national convention if he loses the California primary.
"No," Kennedy said, his voice ringing with resolution. "I will not."
Although Kennedy keeps talking about the "big three" primaries -- in Ohio, New Jersey and California -- he has taken the time and jet fuel required to visit all eight of Tuesday's Democratic primary states.
Thus last Thursday found him at the foot of snow-capped mountains in Helena, Mont., convening a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the diminishing availability of rail service for Montana mines and farms.
But there is a strong sense taht nobody is listening.
Last Thursday Kennedy gave a "major speech" in Cleveland, offering a proposal designed to lure Carter into a debate. The chartered campaign jet then raced off to San Francisco, where the Kennedy staffers were elated to find a lead editorial in the local paper headlined "Yes, Let's Have Them Debate."
But when they read the editorial, the Kennedy people found that it was a call for Carter to debate independent John Anderson in the fall campaign. Kennedy was never mentioned.
A day later, a TV interviewer in Los Angeles told the candidate that Kennedy's repeated attempts to bring about a debate, one of the fundamental points of the Kennedy campaign right now, "just sounds like an idiot."
Kennedy got back at her by invoking the memory of his late brother. "Was John Kennedy an idiot for offering to debate Lyndon Johnson in 1960?" he damanded. "Well, I'm asking you. You've effectively stated that I am an idiot -- was John Kennedy an idiot?" The broadcaster, a veteran of a thousand political interviews, was rendered speechless.
But if a sense of ignominy and impending doom surround Kenney's effort now, it should be noted that there was an identical feeling in the last days before the New York and Connecticut primaries, where Kenney scored major upsets and confounded the "experts."
And it should be noted, too, that Kennedy continues to draw big, receptive crowds, including a cheering assemblage of several thousand stacked four balconies high in a block-long shopping arcade in downtown Cleveland today.
With Kennedy, it is never easy to tell whether the people come out of commitment or curiosity; but it did not look like a loser's crowd.