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The front-runners -- now

President Carter's strategy of minding the ship of state while his political opponents scramble on the hustings has again vindicated itself. New Hampshire voters clearly did not hold it against Mr. Carter for refusing to campaign on the spot, and this suggests he may deem it politically wise to stick with his strategy in the upcoming primary battles. His win in New Hampshire, where Senator Kennedy logically should have commanded strength and where Mr. Carter attracted even many Roman Catholic voters, was impressive. With so many preconvention wins, including his showing in the Minnesota caucuses, the momentum is clearly on his side. Even assuming a loss in Massachusetts next week, Mr. Carter seems much more certain of victory at the Democratic conclave in August.

Barring, that is, some major crisis of state which could shift the political winds once again. And that, ironically, is probably the only hope that Senator Kennedy has of reviving his own chances. Despite his efforts to draw a clear ideological line between himself and the President, he has not been able to capitalize on the issues. The American people seem reasonably satisfied with how Mr. Carter is handling the delicate problems in Iran and Afghanistan; indeed these have enhanced the public perception of the President's qualities as a leader. As for the economy, this is bound to be a burning issue in November, but it may be eclipsed by issues of foreign policy. Mr. Kennedy, if he does not bow out of the race altogether, can only count on a resolution of the diplomatic problems turning public attention to the issues of inflation and energy where he perhaps can make some headway -- or on some diplomatic misfortune which might also give him political leverage.

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Even then, however, the Senator would not be assured more voter support. Reports from New Hampshire indicate that negative reactions to him personally and the inescapable cloud of Chappaquiddick were highly factors in his defeat. Regardless of his stands on the issues, he has not managed to convey those attributes of leadership -- grace, conviction, fluency -- which were hallmarks of the other Kennedy politicians. The impression is still sometimes of a man who does not fully believe in his own candidacy.

If New Hampshire's Democratic primary opens up some soul-searching questions for Mr. Kennedy, not least of which is how long to stay in the race, the Republican primary has opened up even more questions for Ronald Reagan's opponents. George Bush had staked his all on a good showing in the Granite State, but even his massive organizational effort and almost ubiquitous presence there failed him. New Hampshirites who voted for Gerald Ford in 1976 apparently split their votes among him and the other moderates in the race -- Baker and Anderson -- so the Repulican contest would still seem to be wide open. The first test of this will be Massachusetts, where the moderate Republicans could feel forced to coalesce around Mr. Bush, say, rather than fragment their vote if they hope to offer an alternative to Mr. Reagan.

The former California governor, for his part, cannot but feel elated. He quickly learned the lesson of Iowa -- that you have to spend time shaking hands. And the purge of his campaign staff indicates he means to pursue the style and the ideology which won him New Hampshire. Whether the new crew will prove adept remains to be seen. But Mr. Reagan probably looks ahead rather confidently.

There are 34 GOP primaries left. About half of them are in the South and West where he has strong support. No doubt he is counting on a worsening inflation picture -- and his creditable economic leadership of California when governor -- to generate voter enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Where this will leave the nation in November is still impossible to know. Too many surprises have erupted to rule out more in the months ahead. But we can only express satisfaction in the lively interest of voters in the political process -- and hope that the candidates will deal with the issues in the forthrith, thorough manner such interest warrants.


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