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The Kennedy challenge: rule or ruin?

"He's Ronald Reagan's best helper," is the way a key Carter aide describes Senator Kennedy. "We've got enough problems as it is without Kennedy cutting us up."

The Carter camp had thought that by now the Kennedy challenge to the President would have subsided, that the senator would have moved toward reconciliation. But now there are growing anxieties that he has adopted a rule-or-ruin approach -- that he is out to create such division at the New York convention that the President will be finished even before the fall campaign begins.

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Further, the suspicion grows among Carterites that Kennedy is waging a personal vendetta against Carter, not the crusage for his brand of liberalism which the senator professes it to be.

Whatever Kennedy's motives, he should know that Democratic leaders of all persuasions (including those who have sympathy with some of his proposals) are beginning to lose patience with him.

A recent Monitor phone check with Democratic leaders around the United States drew these comments on a not-for-attribution basis:

From the Northeast: "I've never really been a Carter booster -- but I think Kennedy has carried this far enough. The last thing we need is a Republican president. But Kennedy is helping to bring this about."

From the Midwest: "Kennedy has made his point. Now he should just shut up."

From the Rocky Mountain area: "Kennedy's dialogue has been useful. But he should accept the fact that he's lost. If he keeps on he'll help elect Ronald Reagan."

These are some of the milder criticisms of the Kennedy stance, coming from those who profess to be or to have been Kennedy sympathizers.

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Democratic leaders who have backed Carter all along are increasingly bitter about kennedy. Some are beginning to question Kennedy's motives -- suggesting that the senator is putting self-interest above the good of the party. Some go beyond this, calling Kennedy a "party wrecker" and asserting that his motives are simply to destroy the President at any cost.

Friends of the senator still insist that he is sticking with his challenge simply because he is convinced that the Carter fortunes will be so low at convention time that the delegates will abandon the President and choose a Kennedy to lead them once again. They say that Kennedy believes, too, that if he is not able to relieve the President of his party leadership role that he may , at the very least, be able to force Mr. Carter to liberalize his domestic programs -- particularly those relating to increased funding for jobs.

But the senator should know that his tactics are beginning to stir up hostility toward him even among Democratic leaders who were all-out supporters of his two brothers and who also, until recently, were welcoming the possibility -- as unlikely as it was -- that Kennedy might somehow be able to replace Carter at the head of the ticket.

Now even many of Kennedy's best friends among the nation's politicians say tht the senator is becoming a spoiler and that if Kennedy persists he may have to live with being blamed for electing Ronald Reagan.

In their opinion, if Kennedy continues his challenge to the bitter end, it may mean the termination of his own presidential aspirations, for a party that is wrecked by him would never come together behind him as its presidential nominee.

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