"Mr. Dodd," said the Southern Connecticut State College student this afternoon, "I couldn't help but notice that in your talk, you said almost nothing about your own race but you spent a lot of time telling us why we should not vote for John Anderson."
"John Anderson is a good man and a good friend of mine," replied Democratic Rep. Christopher J. Dodd, the heavy favorite to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff here. "We served together on the Rules Committee. But as good and qualified as John Anderson is, he will not win a single state. Nineteen days from now, we will either reelect Jimmy Carter or elect Ronald Reagan -- and that's the reality you have to face.
"I'm not going to insult your intelligence by arguing you should vote a straight Democratic ticket, or pretend that I support enthusiastically everything Jimmy Carter has done. I supported Ted Kennedy over Jimmy Carter for the nomination, but that's irrelevant; it's old history. I'm saying you have enough judgement to distinguish between Jimmy Carter and a man who would junk SALT II . . . and turn over every energy policy decision to the boardrooms of the oil companies."
Dodd's pitch to the student crowd, which he is repeating across the state, has a double significance.
It reflects his confidence -- which both Republicans and Democrats say is merited -- in his own lead over Republican James L. Buckley, the former Conservative-Republican senator from New York, who was defeated for reelection there in 1976 and has moved his campaign across the border this year.
It also points up the fact that the Anderson vote is the main obstacle facing Carter as he seeks to win Connecticut's eight electoral votes, which went to President Ford in 1976. The "Dodd factor" makes Connecticut one of Carter's best bets anywhere to steal a state that was in the Republican column in the last presidential election.
Dodd has emerged as the strongman of Connecticut politics this year. He and popular Democratic Gov. Ella Grasso will be at Carter's side when the president visits Hartford Thursday -- symbols of the effort the Carter campaign is making to provide strong local links for a candidate who has never demonstrated much personal appeal in Connecticut.
Anderson's chairman, Hartford Republican city councilman Sydney Gardner, broke party lines two days ago to endorse Dodd in what was viewed as an effort to keep Dodd from working overtly against Anderson. If that was the aim, it has not worked.
A month ago, Dodd was worried enough about his own race not to spare much attention for the president's problems with inflation, the Anderson vote or the lukewarm feelings of those Democrats who gave Kennedy a victory in the March primary.
But two weeks ago, Buckley -- whose personal campaigning is gentle-manly and erudite -- gambled on a political ad accusing Dodd of voting this year for an amendment to the open-housing law that Buckley said would have permitted federal bureaucrats to "bust" local zoning ordinances.
The emotional issue backfired, with many of the state's newspapers endorsing Dodd's denials of the accuracy of the charge and accusing Buckley of a low blow. The damage was compounded when Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, the popular Republican incumbent in posh suburban Fairfield County, where zoning is regarded as a sacred right, said he would have voted the same way Dodd did had he not been absent that day.
Dodd, 36, is a personal campaigner with a following that reaches from the campus liberals to the older, more conservative Irish and Italian Democrats who remember his father, the late Sen. Thomas J. Dodd.
His name on the ballot, his support from the Machinists, Teamsters and other unions lukewarm or opposed to Carter, and his elaborate get-out-the-vote operation all stand to help Carter.
Reagan's counterweight is his running mate, George Bush, whose father, the late Prescott Bush, was also an admired former Connecticut senator.
Bush's allies are providing the leadership in the Reagan campaign here, and have been pressing the national organization for more of Bush's time. The vice-presidential candidate will be back at the end of the week for another swing through the state.
A mid-September University of Connecticut poll showed Reagan, Carter and Anderson in a virtual three-way tie, with percentages in the high 20s. More recent private polls have shown Carter 4 points ahead, but Anderson still claiming 15 percent and at least as many undecided.