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Carter, Reagan -- if no stumble they'll win

In the wake of the impressive wins by President Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire, their vanquished opponents are taking a sober, practical look at their next campaign steps.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's sup pordays can help them as much as a shift in focus to President Carter and the troubles piling up on his White house desk -- most visibly public frustration over inflation and the lingering Iranian hostage impasse.

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The Democratic race has become Mr. Carter's to lose -- not Senator Kennedy's to win -- concedes Richard Stearns, Sen

"If the press thinks Kennedy cannot go the distance, they will focus on Carter," Mr. Stearns says. "That could be the best thing for us. Nothing we can do -- no increased exposure, no new speech, no campaign device -- could do as much for us as renewed attention to Carter. If Carter support is perceived as softening, the press will be after him."

But time is short, Mr. Stearns says. "Some turn has to occur by the end of March," he says. "Because of the mathematics of the delegate proportionality rule, New York March 25 is really the last plausible cutoff point for a Kennedy exit."

For the time being, Mr. Carter is thought likely to continue his Oval Office strategy, leaving his family and other backers to appear for him on the campaign trail.

"The hostages thing is turning sour for him," says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine. "The frustration level is getting high. He is down 20 to 25 points on his handling of Iran in the Harris surveys. All this publicity now starting on the nightly TV over the Shah is unsettling. More important, a new wave of fear over inflation has started. Announcement of Mr. Carter's budget-cutting steps, like cuts in social security cost-of-living increases -- postponed to after the primary -- could help him or hurt him. Mr. Carter doesn't have clear sailing."

On the Republican side, Tuesday's biggest loser, former UN ambassador George Bush, could not say what hit him, after going into the balloting tied for the lead in the polls. After the Saturday debate fracas, in which he was blamed for keeping his rivals from appearing, the large undecided bloc obviously split toward Mr. Reagan in the closing hours of the campaign. Beyond that, Mr. Bush may have appeared too opporunistic, his people say. some voters feared he might be too quick on the nuclear trigger.

From a delegate point of view, Mr. Bush still is in good shape, after his wins in Iowa and Puerto Rico, his backers say. But he must solidify his "fragile" support in the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries next week (March 4) if he is to avoid losing his Southern footing entirely in the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida primaries March 11.

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"The Reagan people are in a whole new ball game, too," points out a Bush supporter. "They lost a major strategist in John Sears." Mr. Sears -- who had advocated the low-pro- file, more centrist candidacy for Mr. Reagan that was blamed for the narrow Bush upset in Iowa Jan. 21 -- was forced out of the Reagan hierarchy Tuesday afternoon before the New Hampshire victory became clear. Other key people are leaving with Mr. Sears, and the new Reagan team will have to prove itself in the coming weeks, his rivals say.

Mr. Reagan is thought likely to run a "vintage conservative" campaign from now until the July 14 convention, but will avoid alienating his party's center. TThere is talk of a stop-reagan movement within the party, perhaps featuring a comeback by former President Gerald Ford. But this does not appear likely, political observers here say. With critical primary filing dates already passed , and Mr. Reagan's strength ex pecinto the West, a Ford candidacy seems impractical.

So far, Mr. Reagan has avoided the far-out statements that ruined Barry Goldwater's 1964 White House try, such as the proposal to end social security by switching retirement programs to private insurers. Only if the polls close to the convention show Mr. Carter running away with the elction may there be a stop-Reagan effort, says Stephen Wayne, George Washington University Political scientist. By then it will likely be too late, unless Mr. Reagan's rivals agree to hang in the race to prevent his election on a first ballot.

Senator Baker barely got the share of New Hampshire votes he had said he needed to justify staying the course.He still is hoping for some positive signal. He wants to take on ex-Reagan strategist John Sears to run his own campaign. Mr. Sears, a close friend of Mr. Baker's remains a highly regarded strategist who could prove helpful in the pivotal Illinois primary March 18, where Mr. Baker thinks he may make his first strong move.

Representative Anderson was heartened by his New Hampshire showing, scoring the necessary 10 percent to win delegates and keep federal matching funds.But Sen. Robert Dole appears out of the running. Federal election laws call for a matching funds cutoff after two straight sub-10 percent primary finishes, and next week's New England primaries hod out little hope for him.

Former Texas Gov. John B. Connally has sought to obscure his 2 percent New Hampshire finish by making the March 8 South Carolina primary a showdown against Mr. Reagan -- a test he now appears cetain to lose.


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