To see him at the podium claiming victory in the crucial California primary, jokingly thanking his dog Freckles, passionately hopeful that the divided country could come together, flashing a peace sign as he exhorts: ‘So it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there!” Knowing what is to come a moment later, it is hard not to assume that it was only Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets that kept Robert Kennedy out of the White House.
The cold political realities of June 1968 were very different. Despite his victory in the winner-take-all California primary—a victory that was well under the 50 percent mark the Kennedy campaign had hoped for—the primary season was ending, as virtually every TV analyst noted, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had entered no primary battle, as the real winner. Big states without primaries, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, were lined up solidly in his corner, as were the Southern states, as was the leader of the AFL-CIO. And once the New York primary ended two weeks after California, there was no place else to go to win delegates at the ballot box.
“We were losing altitude,” de facto campaign manager Fred Dutton reflected later. looking back at the political terrain Kennedy was facing. In fact, the day of the primary, Dutton was skeptical enough of our chances to suggest that RFK would take the vice-presidential slot if offered.