Washington — Will Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drop out? This question is heard increasingly in top political circles in Washington. The Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential challenger says "no" and plans a "major" speech Monday which his staff will raise this question: "Do you reward a man [Jimmy Carter] who has brought us to the brink of war?"
The speech's theme, Kennedy campaign director Joe Crangle indicates, will be directed at crises abroad and will ask, "How did we get into this mess?"
Asked if this tough approach would "play" with the American people, Vice-President Walter Mondale told the Monitor in an interview: "Joe is my friend. But I don't think foreign policy is his specialty."
Senator Kennedy now is viewed among expert observers as hanging on the ropes. The senator himself had indicated that he has to win in New Hampshire to continue on in the pursuit of the Democratic nomination. But he and those around him now have clouded that estimate with new utterances about staying in the race even if the President beats him there.
Asked if he thought Mr. Kennedy might pull out after losses in Maine and New Hampshire, Vice-President Mondale said: "It's possible. But I'm assuming it will go all the way."
Senator Kennedy's fading prospects contain the following elements:
* Recent polls of New Hampshire Democrats have shown Kennedy's 2-to-1 lead of last fall turning around.
On the day before the Iowa caucus, one assessment showed President Carter with a narrow lead in the Granite State.
Now a Boston Globe poll shows Mr. Carter 18 percentage points ahead among likely voters and leading among all categories of voters, including liberals, young people, and Roman Catholics -- traditionally strong Kennedy backers.
And word from Maine indicates that President Carter is leading there too.
* The Kennedy decision to cancel a weekend of campaigning in New Hampshire and schedule a "major" speech is viewed by some observers here as a move of "desperation" politics. Further, questions are being raised about how a "tough" Kennedy speech, attacking the Carter foreign policy -- and, in effect, charging earlier presidential softness and ineptness -- will be received.
Of the risks involved in making a speech on foreign policy and defense at this time, a Kennedy aide has said that the senator must say what he thinks on these issues "even if he loses."
* The Kennedy campaign is being damaged, perhaps irreparably, by overspending and, hence, low current funds.