July 02, 1979 12:00 PM

It was the kind of day Ted Kennedy lives for, filled with people, action, movement. Under the bright afternoon sun he was flying west to Cedar Rapids in a six-seater Learjet with his colleague and former Harvard football buddy Iowa Sen. John C. Culver. Officially the trip was billed as a favor to Culver—a speech to the state Bar Association to drum up good feeling and fat-cat support for a senator under fire from anti-abortionists. The fact that the January party caucuses in Iowa will be the first contest in next year’s presidential campaign of course had nothing to do with the trip. “Uh, as I’ve said, uh, many times,” Kennedy began on the plane, leading into his rote response to that question, “uh, I expect the President to be renominated and I intend to support him.” But the answer had a slightly hollow sound now—just two days after Carter had threatened to “whip his ass” in any presidential confrontation. Kennedy added his latest caveat. “Obviously if Carter withdraws, uh, I’ll give it serious consideration. But it is not a relevant issue.”

Shortly thereafter, as he pulled up at Stouffer’s Five Seasons Hotel, the Democrats of Cedar Rapids proved themselves a stridently irrelevant bunch. A slipshod, last-minute leafleting campaign failed to deliver the massive Kennedy rally that had been hoped for in the hotel parking lot, but the thicket of “Kennedy in 1980” signs that sprang up on the sidewalk roundly outnumbered the small group of anti-abortionist pickets. “We love you,” somebody shouted. “Please run for President, Teddy,” another called out. Inside the meeting, he talked shop with local federal judges, swapped football stories with Culver and laughingly straight-armed Bill Fenton, the organizer of a local Draft-Teddy movement. “Don’t look over your shoulder,” he told Fenton, nodding at a cluster of reporters. “Those guys will be expecting a big wink or something.” Then, obligingly, Kennedy winked.

The charade was just that. Iowa—a state where Kennedy leads Carter 40 to 17 percent in the latest poll—was plainly another whistlestop in his coquettish noncandidacy. Culver set the tone for Kennedy’s speech in his introduction: “Ted doesn’t mind he isn’t President—he just minds that someone else is.” Then Kennedy, after playing the loyal Democrat (“All of us share the hope that the President’s trip to Vienna will be successful”), gave the lawyers their money’s worth—including enthusiasts who had paid scalpers up to $75 for a $12.50 ticket. “I reject the defeatist view that we are already doing the best we can,” Kennedy thundered. “Our problems today call out for something more—a boldness of thought and action that matches the boldness of our history.” Some in the audience took it as a rebuke to Carter’s leadership—and they loved it.

If any doubt remained that Kennedy, 47, is the hottest pre-campaign act among the Democrats, Carter’s saber-rattling resort to bad language seemed to certify the fact. The White House has moved into a full-court press on Teddy: enlisting Carter loyalist John White, the party chairman, to haul him on the carpet as a spoiler, scoring points on him in the Senate by luring Finance Chairman Russell Long over to the White House health insurance compromise—thus threatening Teddy’s most public cause—and even offering a federal job to one potential Kennedy organizer. Still, the Draft-Teddy organizations keep proliferating—five have so far filed with the Federal Election Commission—and unless he disavows each, he becomes, de facto, an announced candidate. He has done so without enthusiasm. As a Kennedy aide qualified the disclaimer to one would-be draft organizer: “Now the press can’t say we didn’t call you.”

Kennedy’s high-profile visit to Iowa was read by some observers as a way of testing how hurtful his most notorious demerits—Chappaquiddick, his troubled marriage and his extramarital life—would really be. The answer was mixed. A Yankelovich poll last year found that Kennedy has been all but forgiven for Chappaquiddick. Mary Jo Kopechne drowned there 10 years ago July 18, and her parents said two weeks ago they would not oppose a Kennedy campaign for the Presidency. Nonetheless, the shadow of Chappaquiddick would certainly rise over any such candidacy. In recent months he has done nothing to amplify his stock dismissal of the subject: “It’s up to the people. I hope they make a judgment based on the total record.”

More than Chappaquiddick, some of his staff worries about the continuing conflict between his social life and marital responsibility. Joan, his wife of 20 years, still struggles with a drinking problem, and the couple’s separation shows no sign of ending; she lives in Boston, he in McLean, Va. with their son Patrick, 11. (Kara, 19, is a sophomore at Trinity and Teddy Jr., 17, will enter Wesleyan in the fall.) Kennedy remains publicly supportive of Joan’s new life in music education and AA (“I admire Joan for facing up to the problem she’s had”). But while he was in Iowa she admitted: “I guess I vacillate on Ted’s running for President.” Could she campaign for him? “Right now I don’t know.”

Though all but silent on these sensitive issues during his day in Iowa, Kennedy vigorously banished thoughts of other obstacles to his candidacy. Hadn’t he once vowed never to run while his mother, Rose, was alive? His answer now: “I’ve always been mindful of the strain Mother’s under, but she would support any decision I made.” Nor, he seemed to indicate, would her fears for his safety—or his own—deter him. Referring to the history of family tragedy, he said, “If you think about it all the time it impacts your effectiveness on everything you do. But if you aren’t aware of it on some level you become insensitive. So you work at keeping a balance. It’s not hard.”

Kennedy’s message, as his day in Iowa ended, was far from clear. Perhaps he is simply making sure no one else—especially Jerry Brown—will get the nomination if Carter should withdraw. Perhaps he is taking his non-campaign on the road only to increase his stature in the Senate, though he is already among its most powerful and hard-working members. Perhaps he has increased his staff by 40 since January merely because of the demands of his new chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. And perhaps he is trying so hard to lose weight—dieting down to 205, working out in the Senate gym, jogging a mile every morning—for purely aesthetic reasons.

His supporters hope for a simpler explanation. “This Draft-Kennedy thing is just the tip of an iceberg,” says Earl Craig of the Minnesota committee, adding in an excited confusion of metaphors: “If he says yes, it will blow most of the iceberg out of the water.”

When the plane touched down in Washington long after dark, Kennedy and Culver hopped into Teddy’s Pontiac convertible, opened the top and roared into the night. The smile on Teddy’s face spoke of his love of a day on the hustings. It is perhaps his greatest pleasure—and one that, by habit, training and ambition, he cannot give up without a fight.

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